As much as we both dislike conflict, we seem to have an uncanny ability to get into fights at the most inconvenient times. Take, for example, the fight about money we started minutes before a group of friends came over to our house. Or the fight about being late we had in the car on the way to church, which also turned into an argument about money. And of course there are all the times we’ve argued late at night when all we really wanted to do was to go to bed. So we did.
Over the years, we’ve learned to ignore the advice we’ve heard at almost every wedding we’ve been to, including our own: We go to bed angry.
The Gottman Institute has disproved the myth that you shouldn’t let the sun set on your anger. At the Love Lab, couples were interrupted in the middle of an argument and asked to read magazines for 30 minutes. When they resumed the conversation, they had physiologically calmed down, which allowed them to communicate rationally and respectfully. Rather than seeing it as an inconvenience, taking a break when we feel ourselves getting overwhelmed during a fight has been helpful, even if that means sleeping on it.
But how we can stay connected to each other when there’s anger burning in our hearts?
We’ve discovered that navigating breaks in conflict is easier when we’ve been intentional about tending to our relationship before an argument occurs. By creating a habit of turning toward each other in our everyday lives, we feel less anxious about leaving a conflict unresolved. This accumulated goodwill translates into less fear and uncertainty about the stability of our relationship.
“Each time partners turn toward each other, they are funding what I’ve come to call their emotional bank account,” writes Dr. John Gottman in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. “They are building up savings that, like money in the bank, can serve as a cushion when times get rough, when they’re face with major life stress or conflict.”
Conversely, if we haven’t been good about our relationship upkeep — if we don’t make time to connect or we fail to respond to each other’s bids for affection — leaving a conflict unresolved gnaws at both of us. We both feel less secure in our relationship, which makes it harder for us to be present with each other or with others until the conflict get resolved.
We’ve also realized that it’s important for us to consider each other’s specific needs and manners of dealing with conflict. For example, David is good at compartmentalizing his emotions, and so he can easily set aside an argument and continue unperturbed until we’re able to pick back up again. Constantino, however, is more emotionally attached and can sometimes feel anxious about the relationship. In previous relationships, if a fight got too heated, Constantino couldn’t just hit the pause button and then go hang out with friends — everything had to stop until he was able to work through the conflict.
But Constantino’s ability to pause has been improving as we’ve become more aware of ourselves and each other. Because we’ve built strong love maps, David has learned that Constantino needs extra reassurance in the midst of an argument. Even if we can’t resolve our conflict at that moment, David will say, “I’m really angry right now. I love you and I know we’ll work through this later.” By reminding Constantino of his love and his commitment, David helps to reassure Constantino and put his mind at ease. It also helps if we set a specific time to resume the conversation.
When you’re unable to resolve a conflict in the moment, either through circumstances or stalemate, remember that you’re ultimately on the same team. Reminding yourselves that you want what’s best for each other and for the relationship will put the conflict in perspective and help you function together as a couple even when you feel distant or divided.
In a committed relationship, remember that you’re in it for the long haul. You can forgive tomorrow what you cannot today. You can argue tomorrow if you can’t today. And you can love better tomorrow, even if it’s difficult today.