How to Have a ‘Good’ Fight With Your Partner

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Perhaps the name “Gottman” rings a bell. Maybe you caught wind of the now viral bird test on TikTok, or made your way through The Love Prescription: Seven Days to More Intimacy, Connection, and Joy with your significant other. If you’re in even deeper, you may have seen a Gottman Method–certified therapist, or, like thousands of others who have read their books and attended their workshops, generally worship at the altar of Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD, and John Gottman, PhD,—the married couple, now 72 and 81 years old respectively, who have dedicated their lives to understanding what makes relationships work.

Julie is a clinical psychologist who began her career studying and advocating for same-sex couples who want or have children; she’s now been practicing for more than three decades. John is an MIT mathematician turned clinical psychologist; his data models have become famous for their wild accuracy in predicting, in mere minutes, whether a marriage will end in divorce. Together, they built the Gottman Institute, a powerhouse of content, educational programming, laboratory research, and resources for both therapists and patients—all about love.

The Gottmans’s latest book, Fight Right: How Successful Couples Turn Conflict into Connection, is SELF’s Well-Read Book Club February pick. We recently caught up with the couple by phone in the midst of a winter storm at their home in Orcas Island, Washington. “We have as much time as you need because we have no internet,” John says cheerily, the dog barking in the background. Read our full conversation—covering everything from the most common fights couples have to the difference between healthy and unhealthy anger—below.

SELF: You start the book discussing how the pandemic impacted romantic relationships—good ones got stronger and weak ones came to an end. What do you think some of the long-term effects of the pandemic might be on couples who got through it, people who are currently dating or looking for a partner, or even on the family unit and other models of partnership?

JULIE: It's been a mess. Unfortunately, the pandemic caused huge increases in depression and anxiety, which leads to people withdrawing instead of reaching out. I think the 2024 election is also creating anxiety. People aren't sure what to do with their work, with their jobs. That unsteadiness reminds me of trying to balance on a board on water, and you’re tipping all over the place. It feels that way to me with my clients and the people that I know.

JOHN: But I think there’s a positive side to this too, because people have been reexamining what they want out of life, and more and more people are turning toward relationships as a source of meaning. People are really thinking, “Do I really want to do this for my whole life? And what are the alternatives?” There’s almost an existential opportunity for people to rethink their lives and find new sources of meaning rather than trying to be famous and rich as major American goals.

In one of my favorite parts of the book, you write, “The number one thing couples fight about is nothing.” Can you explain what that really means?

JOHN: In our research, we identified the major issues that couples fight about. First we observed couples in our lab, and then we recorded them in their homes. The more we ventured into their everyday lives, we saw that most of the arguments people had weren’t actually about topics like taking out the trash or dealing with your in-laws. They were about the failure to connect—one person was really trying to reach out and find some deep level of connection, and they would be met with indifference, a lack of understanding, or just irritability from their partner. That seemed to be the underlying issue of most arguments—a turning away.

Then we saw that there were perpetual problems people kept fighting about over time, as we’d bring them back to the laboratory every three or six years. When couples were gridlocked—frustrated and unable to reach compromise—behind each person's position was a reason that they couldn't compromise, or a sense that if they compromised on this issue, they would be selling themselves out. Usually there was some kind of hidden meaning in their position: some dream, ideal, or value that they really held dear.

Those were twin findings on what fights are really about: one having to do with turning away or against in everyday small moments as a major source of conflict, and the other being that there are gridlock conflicts that arise from personality differences or different lifestyle preferences. In other words, the fights weren’t about the subjects they seemed to be—they instead were usually coming from one of these two deeper issues.

JULIE: The only thing I would add—John gave a great answer there—is the portion of the book that talked a bit about game theory. In our research, we saw that many people were thinking more about their benefit than their partner’s benefit. In fact, they weren’t even considering their partner. So fights were turning into a win-lose battle—a “zero-sum game,” as they call it—which does not work.

This is historical: In the ’80s, everybody was thinking about the self. I think, in fact, SELF magazine was invented around then. [Editor’s note: Yep, we launched in 1979.] Everybody was thinking about self-care, self-improvement, self, self, self. Nobody was really thinking about, “How can I be a more caring, compassionate human being in every relationship I have?”

“What's going to be best for both of us—maybe even more so for my partner than me?” is a thought that people used to have a while back, but they don't really have it all that much right now. I'm also thinking about the economic recession in 2008, which made people think more seriously about, “How can I maintain my own sense of security?” I'm hoping that, instead, people will start to ask, “How can I be a better human being in terms of compassion, in terms of caring for one another?”

As someone who was raised by a staunch feminist, I’ve always found that difficult to do: I was raised to believe that I should never compromise or settle for anyone else, especially men or romantic partners. But then I had a rude awakening in my own marriage that it isn’t so black and white—partnership does require at least some compromise to function. How do you see this tension playing out with couples today, especially within the context of gender?

JULIE: I was a big part of the feminist movement beginning in the ’60s and ’70s, and God, it was hard. We had to fight for our own rights. The pendulum had to shift from women being conditioned to serve everybody else from the moment they’re born. As a result, that necessitated a focus more on yourself than somebody else. Now, resentments can spring up almost from our bones when a man is dictating our decisions—we’re not cool with that.

So of course, women weren’t supposed to have anger. Men could have anger, but not women. Anger is usually about facing an obstruction in your path or feeling injustice. And either one of those things can really complicate a relationship—it comes into play big-time during joint decision making, where you want to be heard as an equal, or have your opinion be validated, or told that it makes some sense.

JOHN: Other approaches to couples’ therapy really downplay women’s anger. They say, “Don't be angry. Behind your anger is fear and insecurity. Talk about the more vulnerable emotions. Don't talk about injustice in the relationship, don't talk about your goals being blocked by something. Convert anger into a softer emotion.” But our data was showing if you don't do that—if women actually are angry and have justification for their anger and their partners can really listen to that—it’s great for a relationship. If you look longitudinally—following the same couples over long periods of time, as long as 20 years—a woman expressing her anger actually winds up being great for the relationship in the long run. The data supports the idea that women are not only entitled to anger, but ought to be listened to—not to convert their anger into fear and insecurity, but really stay angry.

That reminds me of one of the Love Lab studies you referenced in the book, where you say that in heterosexual marriages, men who allow their female partners to influence them end up having happier, longer-lasting marriages. I thought that was hilarious, because it's like, “Happy wife, happy life.”

JOHN: That's right. And it works both ways. Because if a woman doesn’t accept influence, the conflict deteriorates to a zero-sum game. It’s destructive not only for the relationship, but interestingly enough, for longevity and long-term health too.

JULIE: We discovered that the number of times a woman—or anybody actually—hears contempt from their partner in one 15-minute conflict discussion correlates with how many infectious illnesses they’re going to have in the next couple of years, which is mind blowing. So what that means is that contempt suppresses the immune system, and the immune system, being more vulnerable, leads to more infectious illnesses.

What we were trying to do in this book is give people permission, really, and say hey, it is absolutely normal to voice your emotions. It’s good to voice your emotions. And it’s okay to voice your anger, as long as you’re not using the Four Horsemen—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling—to do so. People fail to make a distinction between anger expressed in a healthy way and in an unhealthy way, but it makes a huge difference emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically.

In the book, you say it’s a myth that “a conflict is a problem to be solved.” I think this would surprise a lot of people—can you explain why it’s beneficial for us to rethink the purpose of conflict, and what the end result of one should be?

JULIE: Here’s the story: People have different brains. What a shocker. And there’s this myth that you're supposed to marry somebody or be committed to somebody who is a clone of you. You're supposed to have the same interests, the same passions, the same fears, the same belief systems and ethics. Well, it’s so wrong. We have different experiences. Even if we come from identical cultures, we still are very, very different in our own history. What that means is that we form different personalities and different preferences that we run up against in any relationship.

So what happens with conflicts that are based on lifestyle preference differences? Well, they just keep coming up over and over and over again, like we mentioned before. You can’t turn somebody into a clone of you, and typically those perpetual problems could only be solved by marrying your clone. And even then it’s not going to work, because you'll be bored out of your mind.

We found in our research that 69% of problems couples struggle with are perpetual, and the only way to deal with them is to learn how to accept those differences. You can’t really solve or change them. You don’t have to love the differences, but accept them, learn how to dialogue about them, and maybe even laugh at them. When they come up, compromise around them and come up with a temporary solution rather than getting gridlocked on it and fighting to try and have things your way when it runs counter to who your partner is as a human being. That’s the story of that.

Can—or should—you ever try to change parts of who your partner is at their core?

JOHN: I think that’s a fundamental aspect of conflict—the differences between two people actually wind up enriching the relationship.

JULIE: I also think that people do change. There are certain ways that John and I have really worked hard to change in order to be kinder to one another. I'm a neat freak, and suffice it to say, John is not. He—poor sweetheart—has had to put up with my saying, “Clean that up!” a fair amount. It used to take maybe six times to ask him to clean something up. Now we're down to about three—yay! I'm learning how to be much more patient and to understand that, no, that's not going to be his priority. He’s going to want to go practice violin. And I don't blame him. But he has tried hard to accommodate my need for tidiness because he knows I turn into a roaring lioness if things aren’t tidy. So he has changed, no question about it.

JOHN: And you have too.

JULIE: I’ve changed too, to be more patient, to be more accepting—accept popcorn on the couch.

JOHN: That's our latest conflict.

JULIE: Oh, man. You just have to laugh at it. But both people can change. You’re never going to be clones, but you can at least try to be a little bit more of what your partner needs. And that goes back to the game theory.

My final question—have you seen any of the TikTok videos that have gone viral about bidding?

JULIE: We did a TikTok piece that our fabulous new staff person, Nicole, put out there on social media, which was responding to the bird test. They were really fun. So, turning toward is incredibly important, as that really funny, warm, wonderful woman suggested.

‘Fight Right: How Successful Couples Turn Conflict into Connection’ by Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman and Dr. John Gottman

$30.00, Bookshop

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Originally Appeared on SELF