I’m sure you have seen it before. You and your partner go out for a nice dinner and get seated next to another couple. They begin bickering, and before long you are sorry you are sitting next to them. Their talk is unkind to one another, and you can only wonder why they are hashing their problems out over dinner.
John Gottman and Sybil Carre`re studied 124 couples who were married for less than nine months. They watched and coded positive actions or words indicating interest, validation, affection, humor, and joy. They also looked for warning signs including contempt, belligerence, disgust, dominance, anger, fear, tension, defensiveness, sadness and stonewalling.
The results showed that the first three minutes of an argument set the tone for the entire discussion. Along with this study, the University of Washington demonstrated that watching the first three minutes of a couple’s conversation helped them predict which couples would stay married and which would head for divorce.
For couples feeling overwhelmed with their marriage, this research is encouraging. After all, you don’t have to do a total marriage make-over. You just need to focus on how you say things and shorten the whole day down to segments of three minutes. The first three minutes is where couples should begin to make an impact. If you can get the first three minutes right in an argument or discussion, you can improve your entire relationship, according to the research.
This happens frequently in my office. It is one reason I like adult-talk, no insults of one another, and candor whenever possible. It is revealing to couples when I sit with them, write down the positive and negative words I hear, and then after 10 minutes suggest to them that this is what I heard them say to one another. Their homework is to change the negative words to positive words within the first three minutes of their conversations. I actually witness them taking a breath of relief when they believe their marriage is not insurmountable to repair.
Tips to think about for your first three minutes:
1. Talk to your spouse about making this change in your relationship. Try to be aware of what the other is saying, especially when the discussion begins.
2. Encourage each other when you notice you are beginning the conversation with more affection or humor, rather than contempt or anger.
3. Habits take about 30 days to create. Make a plan that you will do this for one month. This helps it feel manageable, and most people like time limits.
4. Don’t be surprised when you see your children change as you are changing. Encourage them by explaining what you hear when they talk. Conversation is modeled. Children say what they hear. When I talk to teens, I have a very good idea of how mom and dad speak in the home.
5. In cases of abuse or addiction, you must think about your survival and your children. This method may work, but not without expert counseling or in-patient help. Save yourself and children first and then focus on your marriage.
Nothing is more important than your marriage. It is the backbone of your family for generations to come. If three minutes could save it, why wouldn’t you try? –Mary Jo Rapini