Go to bed an­gry – it might just save your mar­riage

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Padraig O’Mo­rain

Never go to bed an­gry. Right? Wrong. Wise as this piece of ad­vice might seem for mar­ried cou­ples and for peo­ple in long term re­la­tion­ships, it just isn’t re­al­is­tic. Con­sider what’s go­ing on when peo­ple fight. As the Gottman In­sti­tute, which has done decades of good re­search on mar­riage, points out, a fight means your blood pres­sure is up, stress hor­mones such as cor­ti­sol and adren­a­line are flood­ing your sys­tem and the log­i­cal, ra­tio­nal part of your brain is un­able to func­tion nor­mally. In other words, your prim­i­tive fight-or-flight sys­tem has its fists up.

Tak­ing a break, which could in­clude a night’s sleep, al­lows each par­tic­i­pant to calm down, to get their ra­tio­nal brains back in ac­tion and ei­ther to re­solve the is­sue or agree to dis­agree.

About dis­agree­ing: ac­cord­ing to John and Julie Gottman whose re­search in the US has fol­lowed cou­ples from the wed­ding to the grave or the di­vorce courts, most of the is­sues that vex peo­ple in mar­riages never get re­solved. This ap­plies to “suc­cess­ful” and “un­suc­cess­ful” mar­riages. So if you de­cide to stay up un­til you’ve set­tled the ar­gu­ment, you could be fac­ing into a long night.

Gottman and col­league Christo­pher Dol­lard re­cently told the Wash­ing­ton Post, about a telling ex­per­i­ment. This in­volves in­ter­ven­ing when cou­ples in their lab­o­ra­tory are in the mid­dle of an ar­gu­ment. The ar­gu­ment isn’t ar­ti­fi­cial. As any re­la­tion­ship coun­sel­lor could tell you, get­ting cou­ples to fight is dead easy. It’ s stop­ping them that’s tricky.

The Gottmans clev­erly ask them to stop and read mag­a­zines while they ad­just the lab equip­ment. This takes half an hour at the end of which the cou­ple’s bod­ies are calmer – blood pres­sure down, re­duced flow of stress hor­mones, phys­i­cally re­laxed for in­stance – and at the end of this time they are able to con­tinue their dis­cus­sion calmly and ra­tio­nally.

Rather than fight­ing your way through the night then – and there are peo­ple who do this – the ad­vice is to take a break when feel­ing over­whelmed, per­haps come back to it to­mor­row.

Sound ar­ti­fi­cial?

In­dus­trial re­la­tions

Ac­tu­ally, we com­monly use this method out­side the mar­riage arena. For in­stance, when things get heated in in­dus­trial re­la­tions talks, one side or the other may call for a “side meet­ing” which in­volves the two par­ties go­ing and sit­ting in sep­a­rate rooms un­til ev­ery­one calms down.

Par­ents who sep­a­rate two fight­ing chil­dren and send them to dif­fer­ent rooms “un­til you learn to be­have your­selves” are do­ing the same thing.

This is why all-night ne­go­ti­a­tions in politics and in in­dus­trial re­la­tions are stupid un­less, as I sus­pect, the out­come has been agreed in ad­vance and the all-nighter is just to im­press the troops on ei­ther side.

Sad statis­tic

Back to mar­riage.

Ah, how much bet­ter things would be if peo­ple never fought. Well, no. As Lisa Brookes Kift points out on the Gottman In­sti­tute web­site, cou­ples who never fight may just have given up on mak­ing the re­la­tion­ship any bet­ter.

She quotes a some­what sad statis­tic from the Cal­i­for­nia Di­vorce Me­di­a­tion Pro­ject which found that eight out of 10 cou­ples who di­vorce

A sad and silent crum­bling of the mar­riage takes place over time

do so be­cause they have grown apart slowly over time. They feel unloved and un­ap­pre­ci­ated and no longer close. For these, then, blaz­ing rows are not an is­sue. In­stead a sad and silent crum­bling of the mar­riage takes place over time.

The les­son from this, she writes, is that cou­ples need to “check in with each other not only on the things that are both­er­ing them, but also to cel­e­brate when their part­ner has done some­thing they ap­pre­ci­ate”.

All this hap­pens in the con­text in which most an­noy­ances go un­re­solved and in which we need to dis­tin­guish be­tween the deal break­ers and what we can ac­cept, even with a cer­tain amount of grum­bling.

All of this in turn means that mar­riage is a tricky busi­ness. The Gottman In­sti­tute web­site has lots of good free in­for­ma­tion which could make a dif­fer­ence to any mar­riage.

In “mar­riage”, I’m in­clud­ing long-term, un­mar­ried part­ner­ships also. The ab­sence of bell, book and can­dle doesn’t stop these same dy­nam­ics from work­ing.

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