“It feels like we have the same arguments over and over again.”
“I know deep down that I love him, but too often, I just don’t feel it.”
“Why does it take so little to set her off? I barely walked in the door before she started in on me again!”
“I’m totally perplexed — why can’t we solve anything?”
Couples can love one another very much, be extremely committed to their relationship, and still struggle to connect. Seemingly small incidents morph into big arguments. Each one of you feels angry, frustrated and hurt. You go around and around, trying to figure out why you seem to dig at each other so much, and why disagreements become so intense the more you try to talk.
You might be thinking: “There are so many things to like about him. But for some reason, I just can’t satisfy him.” Or: “She doesn’t see that I’m trying very hard to make her happy.” The paradox is, both partners are unhappy, both want to fix it, and neither seems to know what to do.
What Happens to Our Happiness
Most couples know they can get along, because when life is good, they handle things just fine. But there are those years when bills pile up, work stress gets the better of us, and children add to the complications. Under stress, we are only human, and we aren’t perfect. Sometimes one partner may stop feeling so considerate and may slip up and do something hurtful, or at the very least thoughtless.
However, most people are not selfish jerks. They’re simply trying to cope with the stress in their lives. Yet partners forget this when they get angry.They forget to look for the good things in one another. They forget to make it okay to smile, laugh, and play together. We have a human bias to notice negative feelings and thoughts. We can forget that’s not all there is to see. Un-healed hurts pile up, and both partners slip deeper into feeling unappreciated, annoyed, and irritable.
The problem isn’t our flaws. It’s falling into powerful negative patterns of thinking and feeling which take over the relationship unawares! We slip into habits of pursuit-withdraw or offense-defense without realizing it. One person reacts to something small with a sarcastic comment or a snarly answer. The other person gets defensive and angry. It’s all too easy to get swept up in the cycle. And if the cycle doesn’t stop, it will ruin the relationship. It’s the cycle, not the shortcomings, which partners need to fight.
Softening Fear, Frustration, and Anger
Underneath the growing argument cycle are softer, more vulnerable emotions that need a safe place to come out. Partners can’t address issues like who should clean the kitchen or why the credit card bill is so high until they can see and help each other calm the disconnect that happened when life got more complicated.
It may have started with a defensive huff in response to an innocent question. The other partner takes offense and responds in anger. This pattern is stickier than you might think — because underneath, both partners begin to fear that the relationship is failing. This intensifies the negative emotions. Frustration drives more and more of your exchanges, sending both partners deeper into the cycle. Alarm grows over failed attempts to connect, and that’s why you’re still stuck no matter how hard you try.
Kindness — to yourself and each other, is the first step toward calming the alarm.
The Science of Kindness
The good news is, there is a healthy, proven way out of this seemingly hopeless cycle. To find it, Dr. John Gottman followed hundreds of couples for over thirty years. He watched couples experience both positive and negative interactions in his lab. He looked for differences between couples who went on to stay together happily, and those who stayed unhappy or later divorced. Here is one valuable highlight from what he found:
The Magic Ratio, 5 to 1: Some interactions, like hugs, smiles, and kind words leave both partners feeling good. Other interactions, like being ignored, dismissed or criticized, feel bad. Tally up the good and the bad over a given time, and you can see which happens more often. Gottman found a kind of “golden ratio” of 5:1 meaning that couples who remained happy over time enjoyed about five positive incidents to every negative one.
How can partners find a five-to-one balance? It may surprise some people that a healthy balance depends so much on positive exchanges, but Gottman found even small things count. Holding hands, smiling, chatting politely, and laughing together — these can add up to sustain a basic positive view. Couples don’t need to deny their differences. Having arguments is part of the balance. But for long-term happiness, couples can take steps to help good experiences outnumber the bad ones.
More on the Big Benefit of the Little Things
Little things matter more than you might think. Smiling when you first see one another, a quick kiss before you roll out of bed, and listening attentively as your partner talks in the evening can help you reconnect at the end of the day. Small acts of service, like preparing him a cup of coffee as you make your own, or taking her turn to get up at night with the baby communicate your love to your partner. Politeness counts too! Getting into the habit of being kind and polite when talking together — even on stressful days –goes a long way toward defusing conflict before it ever starts.
Basic kindness is the glue that holds relationships together. Couples learn they can be angry and still be kind. Kindness tells your partner that it’s safe in this relationship. It won’t be a perfect relationship, because no one is perfect, but it can still be a healthy one where you care about making the problem the issue, not each other, and that you value each other’s happiness.
Kindness Is the Key to Reconnecting
Even on those bad days when one partner is irritable, kindness means that the other partner can look beyond a harsh tone to try to see what the person is really trying to communicate. It might mean, “I’ve gotten behind in my sleep this week,” or “Work was really awful today.” Kindness fuels empathy, understanding and connection.
When it comes to long-lasting relationships, kindness counts. It opens the door to deeper feelings that that help you soften your approach to each other and learn what you want to resolve in your partnership.