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The secret to lasting love might just be knowing how to fight

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

If you love someone, learn how to fight with them. That might feel counterintuitive, but it is the advice of world-renowned relationship researchers and clinical psychologist Julie Schwartz Gottman and John Gottman. Pulling from four decades of research in clinical practice, the Gottmans' new book, "Fight Right: How Couples Turn Conflict Into Connection," is a guide to some of the most common fights in relationships and how to work through them. Life Kit's Andee Tagle has more.

ANDEE TAGLE, BYLINE: Think about your last fight with your partner. How did it start? According to the Gottmans, the first three minutes of a fight tell you all you need to know about how that conflict will go.

JOHN GOTTMAN: The way you bring up an issue determines the way the conversation will go 96% of the time - and also predicts the future of the relationship.

TAGLE: You heard that right. In a landmark 1999 study, John Gottman found that after observing just 180 seconds of a fight, he could determine 9 out of 10 times whether or not a couple would still be together six years later. What did he find, exactly? When couples began a fight with negative emotions like criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling, what the Gottmans call a harsh start-up, they weren't likely to go the distance.

GOTTMAN: They start by presenting the issue as a defect in their partner's personality, which just leads the partner to become defensive, and it escalates very quickly into a standoff, an attack-defend standoff.

TAGLE: But couples still need to get those feelings out, says Julie Schwartz Gottman.

JULIE SCHWARTZ GOTTMAN: An each person really deserves to express those emotions, but they have to express them in such a way that their partner can hear them, and they're not sabotaging. They're getting listened to.

TAGLE: So when conflict comes knocking, start soft.

GOTTMAN: What that means is you point your finger not at your partner but at yourself.

TAGLE: The Gottmans suggest a simple statement with three parts.

SCHWARTZ GOTTMAN: Describe yourself, your feelings, and what you need.

TAGLE: For example, let's say your mother-in-law is coming over for dinner and you feel anxious about it because she always finds a way to criticize you. A harsh startup might sound like...

SCHWARTZ GOTTMAN: Dear, your mother is a wart on the back of humanity.

TAGLE: This kind of out-of-the-blue, no-context attack gives your partner no choice but to go on the defensive. A soft startup, on the other hand, begins with your own feelings.

SCHWARTZ GOTTMAN: Honey, I'm really feeling nervous. There's the emotion.

TAGLE: Then Part 2 - explain the situation or problem at hand.

SCHWARTZ GOTTMAN: About your mother coming over to dinner tonight - she often finds something to criticize me for. That's the situation.

TAGLE: And finally, Part 3 - this one's the trickiest. You give your partner a positive need. As in...

SCHWARTZ GOTTMAN: Would you please stand up for me if she does that again? There's the positive need. That's how your partner can shine for you.

TAGLE: This gentler approach, says Julie Schwartz Gottman, creates space for your partner to better see your point of view and vice versa.

SCHWARTZ GOTTMAN: And it's so important to understand that your partner is not your clone. They are a different human being with a different brain, a different internal world.

TAGLE: And when you do that, hopefully you'll find yourself even closer to your partner than before your fight. Because...

GOTTMAN: Conflict really has a purpose, and the purpose is mutual understanding.

TAGLE: For NPR's Life Kit, I'm Andee Tagle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andee Tagle
Andee Tagle (she/her) is an associate producer and now-and-then host for NPR's Life Kit podcast.