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Gottman, Conflict Styles, and Why I am Not Worried About My Marriage

Before I went to school, I was sure I could point out which marriages would succeed or fail.  I would casually observe the marriages around me and secretly guess how long each couple would last.  Not a very positive game, but I was surrounded by divorce and keen on avoiding it in my own marriage.  After I married, these observations turned into an obsession.  I was sure that marriages in which the couples argued a lot were doomed, but those that avoided conflict were even worse off.  Surely the best marriages were ones in which arguing was rare but problems were not ignored.  An even balance.

When my sister married, I watched her interactions between she and her husband closely. They seemed intent on avoiding any conflict.  Rather than argue, they would shrug their shoulders and insist that time would solve their problems.  They preferred to emphasize their similarities rather than discuss differences. I gave them a few years.  At most.

A friend of mine, on the other hand, had the dream marriage.  She and her husband would ignore the little things that bothered them and calmly discuss those issues that needed discussing.  In these discussions, each partner would validate the speaker's point, showing understanding of how he or she might feel.  That was how I wanted my marriage to be.

That was not how it happened.  My husband and I are passionate.  We argue frequently.  We are not afraid to share our individual viewpoints and will often alternate between heated discussions and ridiculous laughter.  We do not avoid conflict; rather, we choose to meet each difference head on.  In my eyes, we were going nowhere fast.

That was until I took a marriage class a few months after our marriage.  The professor introduced different conflict styles in marriage which patterned those above: avoidant, my sister's marriage; validating, my friend's marriage; and volatile, my marriage.  He asked us which marriage we thought would most likely succeed.  The majority of the class answered validating.  To our surprise, he informed us that, actually, all three marriages were found to be equally successful.

As it turns out, John Gottman (1), a renowned marriage scholar, has extensively researched conflict styles in marriage.  His findings have indicated that marriage conflict style does not predict marriage stability as much as the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions. Whether you have a high volume of negatives and positives (volatile), a medium volume of these (validating), or a low amount (avoidant) did not matter; it was whether the positives outweighed the negative, with a ratio of 5 (positives) to 1 (negatives) as the most successful average.

Since that class, and many others, I have stopped obsessing over whether a marriage will succeed or fail.  Instead, I have noted the positives in each marriage and prayed for their success.  I also realized that my marriage actually has the potential to reach Eternity.  I guess our intense arguments riddled with silly banter is a good thing after all.

How about you? What is your conflict style?

1. For more information you can read John Gottman's article, "The Roles of Conflict Engagement, Escalation, and Avoidance in Marital Interaction : A Longitudinal View of Five Types of Couples," in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

When Amber isn't chasing after her very active toddler or nursing her little baby, she can be found writing.  You can join her and her crew at Making the Moments Count where she blogs about everything from the messy kitchen to her philosophical beliefs.

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