Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: My boyfriend and I don’t fight very often, and even when we do, our arguments rarely linger for longer than a day or two. About a month ago, we got into an argument about making more time for one another, especially since he travels a lot for work, and I sometimes feel that he doesn’t carve out time to spend together. He agreed that he would put in more effort to make the time for our relationship, but even after the conversation ended, I felt like he viewed our time together as a chore. Needless to say, I can’t get the argument out of my head. Am I making too much of it? Should I say something, or am I opening a closed book for no reason?
A: One month later, if you still can’t get that argument out of your head, you need to discuss those leftover negative feelings with your partner. Failure to do so will leave you stuck with them. A pattern of failing to process negative feelings causes them to accumulate over time. If your partner has — and holds onto — negative feelings, he will be stuck with his, too.
In the 1920s, psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found that human beings have stronger memories for incomplete tasks. Unresolved negative feelings from arguments are like incomplete tasks: We continue to remember them over time. Dr. John Gottman, the world’s leading relationship researcher, found that partners who fail to process negative feelings are vulnerable to the “Zeigarnik Effect”: Negative feelings go unprocessed and are absorbed by the relationship. They erode at the couple’s sense of trust — the feeling that they have one another’s back. Ever-increasing unprocessed negativity has a detrimental impact on marital satisfaction, and increases the risk of divorce.
So how do you get those negative feelings in the rearview mirror?
Here are some ideas:
First, for yourself, reflect on what you thought you heard him say, and how you feel about it. Also, try to imagine what you need from him to feel better. Putting your perceptions, feelings, and needs into “I” statements will help you double-check what you are feeling and why. Having done so, you will be better positioned to express your concerns without sounding like you are criticizing or blaming him.
Next, talk about it. Check with him. Does he have negative feelings about that conversation?
If he does not, try to “complain without blame.” Start with something positive. Research tells us that 97 percent of arguments that start negative, end negative. Use those “I” statements to tell him your sense of what happened. Say, “I thought I heard you say,” rather than, “you said.” Then use “I” statements to own your feelings and needs. Be prepared to emphasize that you are not trying to blame him. You are just telling him what you thought you heard, how you felt, and what you need. You need him to listen, understand your feelings, and respond to your needs. If he does so, thank him!
If he also has leftover negative feelings from that argument, you can use Dr. John and Julie Gottman’s “aftermath of a fight” tool for processing arguments or regrettable incidents instead. This will enable both of you to express what you thought happened, your feelings, and needs, without getting back into the fight.
When you or you and your partner discuss your negative feelings and needs, be honest. When you listen to each other, keep an open heart and mind. Each partner should try to understand the other. The partner who is listening should try to understand, rather than debate. Both partners’ viewpoints are valid. Understanding and responding to your partner’s perspective does not necessarily mean agreeing with it; it just means that you respect your partner enough to understand and respond to their point of view. Even partial understanding, validation, and partial responses can make a world of difference for partners in conflict.
Processing unresolved negative feelings with one’s partner is not like opening a chapter of a closed book. Instead, it is about putting negative feelings in the rearview mirror, as much as possible, to protect one’s relationship from the Ziegarnik effect.
Read more “Asking for a Friend” columns here.