A relationship is two different people working together.
Well, I’ve never met her. She sounds like a deadly assassin with a secret identity. But I do know Christina.
Like Angelina, Christina is an admirable and beautiful woman. She also happened to marry a beautiful man named Brad.
When they first met, he was something different. Mesmerizing. Passionate. But now there is a huge space between them, and it keeps getting bigger.
She’s frustrated and lonely. He is angry and focuses all of his energy on work.
Yesterday they were trying to pick a place to grab dinner. Here’s what happened:
Christina starts. “I’m hungry. Let’s grab dinner.”
“Sounds good to me. What do you feel like eating?” Brad asks.
“I don’t know, you?” replies Christina.
“I feel like pizza. Let’s do that,” he says licking his lips.
“I don’t want pizza,” she complains.
“Okay, what do you want then?” Brad asks again, this time with a tone of frustration.
“I don’t know,” she says with a puzzled look on her face.
“What about seafood?” Brad suggests, desperately wanting to make a decision.
“No. That doesn’t sound good to me,” Christina responds.
“You always put down every idea I make.” Brad storms out of the room.
Christina starts crying. She feels lonely again.
How has something so small turned into something so big? What are they really fighting about? Is this what couples fight about?
Christina and Brad remind me of the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They love each other, but over time their disconnection pushes them apart. Next thing you know they are shooting bullets at each other and their love has turned lethal.
Sometimes relationships feel like we are emotionally shooting each other over the simplest things. Things can blow up over which show to watch on Netflix, where to go to dinner, or which part of the house needs cleaning first.
Meaningless Fights Can Make Or Break Trust
Rarely do couples ever sit down, create an agenda, and argue over a specific topic such as finances. Sometimes they do, but typically they hurt each other’s feelings in seemingly meaningless moments that appear to be about absolutely nothing.
What matters is not the fight itself. What matters is how partners respond to negative emotions in the relationship. If couples see the conflict as an opportunity for growth, they can attune to each other and increase their understanding of one another, deepening their trust in each other and in the relationship.
If partners dismiss the negative emotions in these situations, they may eventually reconnect with one another, but trust will erode a little. Over time, small and meaningless incidents will compound until partners are left feeling hurt, sad, and alone.
Instead of reaching out for each other’s hand, you begin pointing fingers and crossing arms. Instead of talking all night, you feel like you’re walking on eggshells. You feel like you’re too scared to speak about how you feel in fear of starting another fight.
Maybe it’s been so long since you connected with each other that you feel like cellmates instead of soulmates. Am I right?
Why Relationships Fail
Negative events will always happen in relationships, but that isn’t what turns us into cellmates. Relationships fail when the Story of Us is focused on the problems partners create, not the love partners offer.
Practically every moment of your life is narrated by a voice in your head. That voice is either going to remind you how amazing your partner is or how terrible they are to you. Those stories are then rehearsed repeatedly in your mind. If your story is focused on the negative, you slowly disconnect, sometimes without even realizing it.
It’s like a stone in your shoe. Over time, it becomes so irritating that you take off your shoe and throw the rock as far away as possible. If we constantly have a narrator telling us how negative our relationship makes us feel, then we start to see our partner as selfish. We stop believing our partner has our best interests at heart. Our potential for disconnection and betrayal increases over time.
The lovey-dovey feelings we once had are replaced with loneliness, frustration, and anger. Each small incident only increases the potential for betrayal or breakup.
There is a point in our relationships when the negative story takes over and dominates all positive stories of our lover. Dr. Gottman calls this being in the “negative perspective.” Even if our partner does something nice for us, it is still a selfish person doing something nice. A person we can’t trust.
Fights Are Inevitable In Relationships
Incidents like Christina’s and Brad’s are inevitable in all relationships. According to Dr. Gottman, both partners in a relationship are emotionally available only 9 percent of the time. This leaves 91 percent of our relationship ripe for miscommunication.
While many see conflicts in a relationship as a sign of incompatibility, it should be seen as a sign that the relationship needs growth to occur.
The feeling of disconnection from your partner can be used to find new horizons of communicating. Your sexless marriage can cause you to take a deep look at your integrity. It can teach you how to embody your deepest desires and how to truly want your partner and experience life-changing intimacy.
Typical conflicts are merely a reminder that a relationship is two different people working together to understand differences and love each other despite flaws.
What Makes Love Last?
When conflict occurs in a relationship, partners need to come together to understand each other better. The negative event is processed, and since partners work with each other, their minds focus on the positives of the relationship. The negative events are forgotten.
Trust is built when we are reminded that our partner is there for us. They reach out for us or grab our hand when we reach out for them. We realize our needs matter to our partner. We forget the details about our hurt and the negative event in the relationship slips from our mind.
Now when our partner is thoughtless, emotionally distant, or mean to us, the story we tell ourselves is that they are “stressed.” We trust them, so we repair the incident and reconnect with one another. Laughter and affection fill our disagreements because we know that this event will be resolved and our relationship will be better because of it.
So when a negative event happens in your relationship, don’t be like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Don’t shoot each other over misunderstandings. Use the event to build trust, to deepen your relationship, and to make it the best damn love story you’ve ever seen.
This article was originally published at The Gottman Institute. Reprinted with permission from the author.