There's a better way for couples to argue, therapists say
Posted April 26, 2019 4:46 a.m. EDT
Updated April 26, 2019 2:34 p.m. EDT
CNN — Anyone who's been in a relationship has been there: the yelling and blaming, the insults, hurt feelings and ultimately withdrawal.
It's so common that marriage counselors have an old saying about it: "We only fight when we talk, so we just don't talk," couples therapist Saul Stern says.
"It's critically important that couples feel comfortable bringing up the difficulties that occur between them, which are inevitable."
Stern says there are a few pointers to do that in constructive ways. His advice is based on decades of psychological research with couples at the Gottman Institute in Seattle. For years, Stern has held couples workshops along the East Coast.
Don't avoid tough conversations
Couples really get into trouble when they avoid tough conversations, Stern says. Resentment and hurt can build up.
That's partly what happened to Veronica and Abraham Pena, who have been married for 11 years but separated four times. When the going got tough, Abraham would take off without warning.
"We never yelled at each other or those kind of crazy arguments people have. We had no communication at all," Veronica said. "When things got tough, he would leave us."
The marriage was rocky from the beginning. Abraham was 21 when they got married. Veronica had a daughter from a prior relationship and got pregnant "right away" after they married. Abraham says it was tough being such a young father with financial responsibilities, a house and a wife. He would go out with his friends every weekend months into the pregnancy. Resentment and hurt grew, but neither talked about it.
"I had a hard time sharing how I felt," Veronica says. "It was equally as toxic not being able to get things out."
Meanwhile, Abraham never told Veronica how he felt and didn't understand his own feelings. The couple decided to go to counseling with Stern. "When we met him, the divorce papers were already on the table," Veronica said.
Step away when it gets too heated
Stern says that If you feel agitated -- your heart is racing, and you're getting heated -- agree to stop talking about the issue until you calm down. The Gottman Institute calls that heightened emotional state "flooding," in which couples are in such distress that their heart rates go to 100 beats per minute or more.
"It's like being drunk," Stern says. "It takes about 20 minutes to calm down, on average."
The problem is that when we're upset, we lose our ability to solve problems. Couples often say things they later regret when they're in this state of distress. And over time, that can become a big problem.
"If expressed in a negative way, as in an attack on a person's character, on their personality -- what comes from that is rejection."
Stern recommends explaining to your partner that you're too upset to talk now but agree to discuss the issue at another time ... and mean it.
He recommends getting outside for a walk or watching a comedy -- whatever you can do to get your mind off that negative track.
"What needs to happen first is to be calm in the body," Stern says.
Understand your feelings; don't just blame your partner
You have to understand your own needs and be able to express them, Stern says.
"Unfortunately, too many of us have not had enough practice at being able to articulate our own feelings or even feeling entitled to feel how we feel," he says.
Abraham Pena would later learn in therapy why he was unhappy. "Being married at such a young age, I had commitment issues, which I didn't realize."
His father often would often leave the family when he was growing up, he says.
"It's tied to dad not being around and cutting loose," he told his wife during a recent couples workshop exercise.
He began to understand why he was always running away -- and his wife realized it wasn't about her. With a little understanding on both sides, their relationship started to change, and the healing began.
Learn your triggers
Stern had the Penas get in touch with their "triggers," the things that sent them down paths of hurt or shame. Abraham started to understand that his wife's repeated disappointment in him only made him withdraw further.
"My trigger is not feeling good enough. I chose to be with you. I don't want to let you down." Stern helped Abraham open up about his fears. "Abe knew he didn't want to replicate what he grew up with. But he didn't know how. He didn't have a positive model for that."
Veronica would share how scared and hurt she was every time he'd leave the family.
"To have that sense of feeling insecure again really just shook me. It was really hard," she told Abraham.
Her husband responded during the workshop exercise: "I 1,000 percent understand how you felt. And I didn't want that at all."
Stern says most conflicts are not actually about the thing on the surface.
"It's always the same fundamental existential problem. 'I'm in pain. I may not even know where the pain comes from. Am I alone in my pain, or are you there for me?' "
Make sure each other feels understood
Many times, couples aren't hearing each other during a conflict. One says something while the other is thinking about what his or her comeback is going to be or hurt feelings. No one is listening, and problems can't be solved. Stern has couples practice truly listening to each other and then repeating back to each other to ensure they understand.
"In the beginning, we had to go back and forth a couple of times to make sure I knew what he was saying and he knew what I was saying," Veronica says.
In the past, "I would assume things," especially when texting. Now they sit down side by side when they need to talk something out.
"It shows we're on the same team," Abraham says.
"If they are sincerely trying to understand each other, they feel acceptance is mutual and 'this person really does have my best interest at heart,' " Stern says.
Part of that language is what Stern calls the "soft startup."
Language such as "you don't appreciate me" goes negatively really quickly, Stern says.
Instead, focus on your own feelings, he says, such as "we haven't had enough time for us lately. I miss you."
Realize that when you begin a sentence with "you," it could lead to a negative path, a way of assigning blame, that won't end well, according to the therapist.
Express appreciation for your partner every day
The foundation for a good relationship, therapists say, is building a sense of friendship and solidarity. And part of building that are the little things: expressing appreciation for each other a little every day.
Stern says simple gestures lift someone's spirits and "buffers the couple" when they're experiencing unpleasant or negative times.
The Penas say that made a huge difference in their relationship.
"In the morning getting ready for work, I tell him, 'you look handsome today' and 'I'm very proud of you,' " Veronica says.
"I thank him every day for the work he does. 'If you're not doing what you're doing, I'm not able to home-school the kids, work in the church and start a design business.' "
That kind of affirmation can mean a lot.
From being an adversary to becoming a partner
Learning how to talk with your partner doesn't happen overnight.
It's a skill, and like any other skill, it takes time to learn.
"It only lasts when couples are consistent about it. It becomes a habit, and like any goal, couples can work on this," Stern says.
Over time, couples begin to learn that "my partner has my back; my partner is in this for us and not just for themselves," he says.
Today, four years after considering divorce, the Penas are thriving.
"Still, emotions run high. We're not perfect. We still have conflict. But we're able to communicate through it," Abraham says. "I'm not going to sugarcoat it for you. It's hard work. But it's worth it."
The couple say they feel so moved by their experience that they now speak to others at their church to help them navigate tough times.
"As long as you have two people that want to make it work, you can make it work," Veronica says. "It doesn't matter what the situation is, you're going to get through it.
"You have the privilege to share your life with this person. What better gift to have on this Earth than to know someone has your back that is rooting for you and wants to see you at your fullest potential."