Participants, either in marriages or marriage-like partnerships, were asked to rate their marital interaction quality as positive (agreeableness) or negative (conflict) every hour for four days. Then, the researchers measured the thickness of the carotid artery using ultrasound imaging.
They found that negative marital interaction was associated with having a thicker carotid artery, an indicator of subclinical cardiovascular disease. Conversely, more positive marital interaction was associated with a thinner carotid artery.
“How can we stop the fighting?” says Laurie Puhn, a lawyer and conflict resolution expert. “It’s the million-dollar question, but it’s the wrong question. The right question is: How can we turn our bad fights into good fights.”
Arguments are inevitable in any relationship, says Puhn, but not all fights have to end negatively. “Good fights, which are rational encounters that effectively address the problem at hand, are the route to a peaceful solution,” she says.
Follow Puhn’s four steps to turning a bad fight into a good fight, adapted from her book, Fight Less, Love More.
Step #1: Do something different
You must be in a logical state of mind, capable of maintaining self-control. How do you wrestle back control over your emotions? It’s simple: You do something different.
When you first detect that you are in high-anger mode, gather your thoughts and say to your partner, “I’d like to have a five-minute conversation.” Then, before you say or do anything else, sit down wherever you are (the floor is always an option). Ask your mate to sit down, too, and face you. It’s harder to get yourself in a huff when you are seated and unable to chase your partner around as you scream about your grievances. (If you are out with your mate in public, then hold your tongue until you are together in private.)
You’ll also short-circuit your fight-or-flight response: While standing keeps your body tensed and ready for action, sitting sends a signal to your brain that you won’t be wrestling any lions or fleeing for the hills right now. Doing this one thing differently gets you out of the routine of your fighting habit and opens the door to a new, rational way to handle the situation.
Step #2: Be a detective
When we are stuck in an emotional fight, we impulsively make assumptions about our partner’s intentions. But if those assumptions are wrong, as they often are, we end up getting sidetracked into a different battle, leaving the real problem unsolved. If you’re going to have a rational good fight, then you have to reject assumptions and go straight for the facts. You do this by being a detective and asking neutral questions.
When you ask neutral questions like those listed below, not only will you uncover intent and discover the real problem, but you will also show respect for your mate’s point of view. Remember, respect is an essential condition for love.
Examples of neutral questions:
• “Why do you think that?”
• “What makes you feel that way?”
• “Is there a reason why you didn’t get to it today?”
• “What caused you to say that?”
• “Did something happen that made you upset?”
• “What would you like to have happened instead?”
Step #3: Report your findings and share your point of view
Once you’ve succeeded at being a detective, the next step is to report your findings. First, you repeat your mate’s words back to him or her by summarizing what you heard. This shows that you understand. Then you check in by asking, “Is that right?” For example, “You said that you’re upset because when I went to the golf club this morning I told you I’d be home before lunch, but instead I came home after lunch. To you, that meant that I preferred being with my friends over you, is that right?”
If your mate says, “Yes, and…,” then listen to the rest of the explanation and rephrase your summary to include all of your partner’s points. A good detective wants to be 100 percent accurate in assessing the situation. Taking the time to fully understand your mate’s point of view in the disagreement is a powerful sign of respect that can snuff out much of the anger that leads to bad fights.
Once you’re sure you understand your partner’s point of view, express your own. Be clear about what you need and want, why you’re hurt, etc., without cursing or blaming. Use language like “When that happened, I was angry because…” Take a moment to think out loud about how your perspective and your mate’s perspective can coexist.
Whatever the situation, you don’t have to agree with your partner’s perspective, but you do have to accept the fact that two intelligent people can hold two different views concerning the same event. That is a powerful insight that keeps you moving forward in a good fight.
Step #4: Partner up
Once both viewpoints have been shared, it’s time to team up and find a joint solution. Encourage your mate to share some ideas about how to prevent the same thing from arising again. The point here is that you need to share ideas. Then you must abandon your own idea in favor of a joint solution that includes a bit of both of your ideas.