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Glorifying the Struggle: On the Road Again

Every relationship has its’ ups and downs. In the context of romantic relationships, it usually happens that people view times of connection with their partner as “ups”, and times of conflict or disagreements as “down”. Of course every relationship will have its’ moments where the partners don’t agree, or one person needs to express dissatisfaction with the way things are going or the way the other person is doing things. However, the goal of most people in relationships is to have far more ups than downs; so what to do?

Many people are familiar with the idea of the “sandwich” approach to criticism which goes: compliment/criticism/compliment. This model is very popular in corporate settings and is typically touted as a model of positive reinforcement in the workplace. Sounds pretty good right? Two compliments to one criticism? I’ll take it!

However, Dr. John Gottman, renowned marital researcher, found in over 30 years of research that “disaster” couples had a ratio of 1:1 positive/negative interactions, whereas the happiest couples were at a 20:1 positive/negative interaction level! Wow! Now, twenty compliments to one criticism might seem overwhelming. I mean, c’mon! We have other things to do in a day right? Well, the good news is Dr. Gottman discovered that the “magic ratio” of positive interactions to negative interactions in a relationship was 5:1 positive to negative interactions. That ratio is much more manageable in an every day situation and still leads to an overall positive perspective in the relationship.

He found particularly that couples who were able to maintain the “magic ratio” during conflict or disagreements tended to end up as “master” rather than “disaster” couples. Research showed that couples that were able to turn conflict into constructive conversations had the strongest connections, were the happiest, most satisfied, and longest lasting. With that in mind, here are five tips to help you and your partner begin to make the transition from conflict to positive conversation in your relationship:

One: Is to realize that it is not really about how much you disagree in a relationship but how you approach that disagreement that makes a difference. Name-calling, put-downs, defensiveness, or criticism are destructive elements to a relationship no matter how often they come up.

Two: Change your approach. Try some curiosity. Instead of dismissing your partner's way of doing things as “wrong”, be curious as to what the story is behind their position. Maybe there is an interesting anecdote they have to share, or a point that you may have never considered that will allow you to view the issue in a new light.

Three: Recognize and remember all the beauty that has come from the struggle. In any experience, sometimes our brains want to focus on the negative rather than the positive. Give yourself and your partner credit for all the bumps that you have already navigated together that have made you stronger as a couple.

Four: Accept that you might need help. Learning skills around conflict management, relational expectations, and communication can help to make the process of understanding your partner easier. Like on the road, when you have some help in the form of good directions, the trip seems easier.

Five: Is to realize that marriage is a life-long journey of learning. You will change over the years, and so will your partner. As long as you learn to approach each turn and bump in the road with curiosity, love, understanding, and openness, you and your partner can continue to enjoy the journey together for many years to come.

With these tips for changing conflict to conversation, you and your partner can begin to see each disagreement as an opportunity for growth rather than a threat to the stability of your relationship. Keep an eye on the "magic ratio" and keep the positive perspective alive in the face of conflict.

-This is Part 2 in a series on Conflict and Communication in Marriage for October 2016-

Kristal DeSantis, M.A., LMFT-A, is the founder of Austin STRONG: Relationship Building Center in Austin, TX

Visit or call 512-887-8036 to book a couples' or individual counseling session. Discounted rates for first-responders. Like our Facebook page for more articles like this one.

​References: Gottman, J., Silver, N. (1999) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Random House: NY, NY.

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