Zach Brittle is releasing his book The Relationship Alphabet today! It is available for 99cents on Amazon Kindle: relationshipalphabetbook.com
Especially for the release of his book, we are posting the first chapter here today. I am excited and eager to introduce you to this man and his book. I've known Zach for the better part of my adulthood and his friendship, along with his wife Rebecca, have been irreplaceable in my life.
A is for Arguments
Just for kicks, I decided to ask Google for help finding marriage and relationship words that start with “A.” I got a lot of help with my Scrabble game, but not too much else. I did find one site dedicated to “marriage vocabulary.” The list of “A” words included: Acceptance, Admiration, Affection, Affinity, Allegiance, Appreciation, Approval, and Attentive.
All of those words are relevant and essential to healthy relationship. They’re good words. And while I think that you and your partner should accept, admire, and all those other things, I also think you should argue. Maybe it’s just me, but I think if you’re not arguing, you’re probably not committed.
When engaged couples come into my office for pre-marital counseling, one of my first questions is, “Could you tell me about when, how, and why you argue?” If they don’t or can’t or won’t argue, that’s a major red flag. If you’re in a committed relationship and you haven’t yet had a big argument, please do that as soon as possible. It’s important for you to understand the anatomy of your arguments so that you can uncover the patterns and themes that recur. Most importantly, it’s critical for you to know that arguing is okay. It can even be productive.
When I begin therapy with a couple, I ask them to argue with one another during the first few sessions, just so we can normalize it a bit. Arguing is just part of the deal--it’s one of the permissions of a committed relationship, kind of like sex. Think about it, you get to have sex with your partner and you get to yell at them at the top of your lungs. Can you do that with a colleague at work? (If you answered yes, maybe you should find a new job.)
John Gottman discovered that about two-thirds of all arguments are perpetual. This means that, most likely, five years from now you’ll be fighting about the same thing you were fighting about five years ago. It might be her mother, or the way you put away the dishes, or his introversion--it doesn’t matter. Sixty-nine percent of your problems are not going away. It’s a simple, statistical fact.
Now consider this question: Is that discouraging or encouraging? Typically, when my clients find Gottman’s statistic discouraging, it’s because they know exactly what their perpetual problems are and they feel overwhelmed at the thought of spending the next thirty-five years arguing about them. But when the numbers encourage couples, it’s usually because they realize that they’re (statistically) normal. They’re relieved to discover that their relationship is doomed just because they have the same old arguments over and over. In fact, it may be a sign that their relationship has a hope they hadn’t previously imagined.
My bias is that the reality of perpetual problems is encouraging. It allows, requires, even invites, perspective about the wide range of conflicts in our relationships and the role those conflicts play. More importantly, it suggests another “A” word: Agency. Agency means you’re not subject to the whim of the moment. On the contrary, you get to choose how you act, what you say, and when you say it, in the midst of each moment. It means you control the conflicts in your life, rather than the other way around.
For example, think about some of your most common points of contention with your partner. In the moment, it’s easy to get caught up in the power of a single issue, but what if you took a few steps back to explore the anatomy of your arguments. How do they start? How do they escalate? How do they go off the rails? How do they end? Once you start to map out these regular arguments and understand their patterns, you’ll find you can predict them, anticipate their trajectory, and perhaps even defuse them. This can seem a daunting task for those arguments that feel older than a fine wine, but give it a try. You may be surprised at the insight you gain into your relationship.
Kindness helps. It can pave the way to repair old wounds and remind you that your relationship is bigger than your argument. Humor helps. It can break the tension of the moment and provide the opportunity to connect anew. Perspective helps. It can refocus your attention, pulling back the curtain to reveal that an overwhelming impasse may in reality be a very manageable annoyance.
I’m not suggesting that some arguments aren’t worth pursuing. About 31 percent of them should be addressed seriously and sometimes through therapy. It could be your anniversary. Her affair. His addiction. But for those perpetual problems—the issues that neither endanger nor desert you—make some choices. Choose kindness. Choose humor. Choose perspective. Whenever you can solve an argument, do. Whenever you can’t, recognize your differences and remember that you’re normal.
Whether you find it encouraging or discouraging, arguing is simply part of the sacred, beautiful, confounding reality of committed relationships. You may not get to choose what you disagree on. But you can choose what you do next.
- Do you remember your first fight (assuming you’ve had it already)? What was it about? Who won?
- Are arguments rare or common in your relationship? How do you feel about that?
- What do you know about your “perpetual arguments”? What do you find encouraging about Gottman’s findings about perpetual conflict? What is discouraging?
- Take a recent or common argument and apply these four questions to determine its anatomy: How did it start? How did it escalate? How did it go off the rails? How did it end?
- What would you like to change about how you and your partner approach argument? What are some steps you can take to accomplish this change?
Zach Brittle, LHMC has been teaching, coaching, and counseling couples for over 15 years. He is a Certified Gottman Therapist with a private practice specializing in evidence based couples therapy. Zach and his wife have been happily married for 17 out of 18 years. They live in Seattle, WA with their two daughters. They own a mini-van and most of their silverware they got as wedding presents.
His writings have been featured in the Washington Post, Verily Magazine, Happify, and The Gottman Relationship blog.