Fighting for a Win-Win in Dating and Marriage: Tips for Handling Conflicts from the Gottman Institute (Book Review)

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This coming week, my church’s Biblical Dating in the Digital Age series will focus on “Dating and the Church of God” – or how a love relationship between a man and a woman that starts with dating will eventually become, in marriage, a visible sign of the invisible grace of God: the relationship between Christ and his bride, the Church.

At the same time as the series has been running, my husband and I have been co-leading a premarital counseling course for several couples that are approaching marriage. The bulk of our course is based on research from the Gottman Institute. Researchers there have been taking a scientific approach to the study of marriage (and divorce) for the past twenty years. Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, is based on those insights, which include an over 90% ability to predict a couple’s eventual divorce simply by the way they react to each other over the course of a normal conversation or day spent together. Many of these insights, though discovered in the context of marriage, are also applicable to dating.

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One of the most helpful insights Gottman uncovered is this: Couples are going to argue. Expect it. In fact, 69% of conflicts between even happy couples are what he terms “Unsolvable.” In other words, they are issues that may appear surface and temporary, but at root are core differences in temperament, values, and beliefs that are not going to go away. Ever. What’s key is not whether you fight, it’s how.

So what’s a dating or married couple to do when faced with the billionth fight over the same topic, whether it’s the frequency of date night, someone’s inability to buy good gifts, or who gets to wield the remote?

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Simple. (Sort of.) You realize that you, buddy, are not going to win this one. Neither is your partner. Not completely. You recognize that you are two people who think differently about what’s important and you agree to disagree.

Let’s say, either while you are already married with kids, or while you are projecting your dating life into its possible future, you begin discussing holidays with the parents.  You think it’s important to spend every Christmas with your parents, and your partner wants to take vacays to Disney with the kids. You are adamant that your family is the most important thing in your life and you want your kids to spend time with their grandparents. Your partner (who is as not as close to his or her parents) is equally adamant that getaways for your nuclear family will help cement your bond and create lasting memories. At the core, the two of you are fighting not about a holiday, but about definitions of family and priorities that you’ve been forming since childhood. Neither of your experiences or values is going to change.

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You could fight about – or sweep under the rug – both the surface and the deeper issue every Christmas for the rest of your lives, and let the bitterness of the perpetual conflict – or perpetual repression – seep into the rest of your relationship. Or, you negotiate. You compromise. You find a middle ground in which neither of you is right, neither of you is wrong, and neither of you gets completely what you want. But both of you win.

You win because you’ve stopped an unsolvable disagreement from spilling into those areas of your life where are in accord. You’ve drained the toxin from a conflict that has the potential to poison your marriage. Now, you agree to spend most Christmases with the grandparents, but every third year you see them on Thanksgiving instead and head to the Magic Kingdom for Yuletide. Is either of you getting exactly what you want, every time? Nope. But both of you are getting some of what you want. Both of your needs and concerns are being valued. And you get to keep a healthy relationship. That’s the definition of a win-win.

(Just know that for me this is an imagined scenario only. In reality, I think I’d commit seppuku with a rusty nail clipper rather than be anywhere near Disney on Jesus’ birthday. I’m not anti-Disney, exactly. Just anti-peak holiday crowds, interminable lines, and exorbitant prices for a stupid sipper shaped like Mickey’s head that, btw, is both creepy and bad for the environment. Let me tell you: it’s exhausting to spend a whole day on your feet while feeling morally superior to the people you are elbowing out of your way.)

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Remember, it’s a beautiful castle, but the wicked witch and her spinning wheel are hiding upstairs. (image from disneytouristblog.com)

That’s just one example of how couples might begin practicing the art of the “win-win” while they are still dating. Whether it’s who pays for those Broadway tickets or how many evenings you need to spend with just the two of you vs. hanging out with friends . . . find a way to negotiate. Give a little to get a little. It sounds manipulative, but it’s not. It’s practical. And it’s loving. You have a perspective that your partner needs. And your partner has a perspective that will help you grow into a fuller, richer person.

I’m not saying don’t have non-negotiables. I’m saying be realistic about how many you have. And ask yourself: If I bend on this a little, what am I losing? What am I gaining? What might my partner lose or gain?

You might gain years together. You might get a marriage as it was meant to be: two people who are willing to mutually sacrifice for the other’s good.

Or, on the flip side, you might decide your non-negotiables are exactly that and save yourself years of fruitless friction in a relationship that doesn’t allow you to express your authentic self, nor appreciate who your partner truly is.

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Either way, it’s a win for both of you.

Find more resources for couples from the Gottman Institute on gottman.com

To follow Vineyard One’s Dating and God series, watch the sermon series on Facebook Live at 10:30 am EST, or at any time after the live stream concludes, or visit vineyardone.nyc.

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