One of the hardest things about finding love is working through the many myths out there about what love looks like. With time, we learn that love doesn't always look like a fairy tale (or a rom-com) and that even couples who have found their happily ever after fight.
A lot of people resist this truth, insisting that fighting is a sign of relationship doom. But the reality is that the true gauge of a healthy, happy relationship is not whether or not you fight, but how you fight.
According to Dr. John Gottman, a marriage researcher who has studied married couples extensively in his "Love Lab," what differentiates happy, stable couples is their ability to overcompensate for the negativity in their marriage with mad conflict management skills. That's right, you can be the happiest couple in the world and still have conflict, major conflict even, but what sets you apart is you ability to manage it.
So if you really want to know if you and your partner have what it takes, take a look at how you fight and whether or not you have mastered these three skills.
01. The 5:1 Ratio
While studying couples in his Love Lab, Dr. John Gottman found that happy, stable couples share one very important common denominator: the negative sentiments in their relationship never exceed their positive sentiments. More specifically, Dr. Gottman found that every happy-stable couple managed to maintain a positive to negative ratio of 5:1 at all times. This means, for every one negative in their relationship, there were always five positives. Dr. Gottman explains that maintaining this ratio provides cushion around your relationship so that the hard times don't feel so, well, hard.
Out of all of the skills happy couples master, this is perhaps the most important. Cutting out conflict from your relationship entirely is a losing battle; in fact, conflict can actually be really helpful for relationship growth. Happy couples are constantly storing positive sentiment. They seek out quality time, words of affirmation, expressions of gratitude, and practice relationship building rituals so that when a they do fight, their love still feels secure.
02. Positive Expressing
Happy couples avoid relationship-damaging behavior during conflict by learning how to express their needs, perspectives, and complaints in a constructive and positive way.
Couples who have mastered positive expressing stick to the facts when they bring complaints to their partner. It's easy to get caught up in our own perceptions of a situation and when that happens we can sometimes express our frustration with generalizations, like “always” and “never.” Trouble is, generalizations like this are rarely accurate and can come across as criticism, one of the Four Horseman of The Apocalypse Dr. Gottman tells us can lead to the demise of a relationship is left unchecked.
Expressing well means avoiding any kind of generalizations and sticking with the facts. Rather than falling into the trap of expressing criticism with generalizations, communicate things like how you feel and the precise situation that made you feel that way. Don't worry if you aren't a pro at this yet, with a little practice anyone can master positive expressing skills!
03. Empathetic Listening
Fighting well isn't all about communicating your own point of view. The truth is, expressing in a positive and constructive way is only half the battle, so the speak. When dealing with conflict, it's important to listen to your partner's perspective and make them feel understood and accepted. This is called empathizing. Empathetic listening plays an important role in building intimacy and respect for your partner’s perceptions, feelings, beliefs, motives, attitudes, and wishes. This kind of mutual understanding is key to a happy relationship.
Empathetic listening requires you to reserve judgement so you can consider your partner's feelings and perceptions. This take more mental willpower than anything else—it means pushing thoughts like "you're wrong" aside and putting yourself in your partner's shoes. This doesn't mean you have to agree with your partner. Coming to an agreement isn't the point of empathetic listening, making your partner feel understood is the goal. This kind of intimacy turns conflict into growth and adds more positive sentiments to your stockpile for a healthy 5:1 ratio!
Obviously, no couple is perfect, and needing to work on your conflict management skills doesn't mean your relationship is doomed. Being that couple that makes love look easy takes a lot of work, but it's totally worth it.
Photo Credit: Britt Rene