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Mindful : April 2017
they don’t like. In one groundbreak- ing study of happily married people, Fisher and her colleag ues found sig- nificant links to brain regions associ- ated with beefing up positive illusions and suspending negative judgments, as well as reward and motivation, empathy and attachment, and the ability to regulate emotion and stress. Yet, no matter how forgiving couples are with one another, there are bound to be chronic differences. In multiple studies conducted by the Gottman Institute, researchers found that only 31% of marital issues can be resolved, while the other 69% fall into what psychologist John Gottman calls the “perpetual problems” category. “The trick is to find a partner with whom you share a set of perpetual problems you can live with,” says Carrie Cole, director of research at the Institute. I was cheered when I learned this, because I’d pretty much concluded the same thing. For example, long ago in our 34 years together I realized that Hugh would rarely—if ever—be the one to initiate difficult conversa- tions about emotional issues, such as feeling jealous, disappointed, or dis- connected. And though this may be a typical male–female thing, I’ve come to accept that bringing up the hard stuff is part of my wifely job descrip- tion. At the same time, Hugh has generously learned to accommodate my anxious wiring, which manifests in bouts of insomnia, hypochondria, and panicky gasps when he’s behind the wheel, zipping across multiple lanes on the freeway, without making me feel like a crazy person. Conflict Happens Even if we give our partners a pass on some of their most annoying habits and practice greater self-awareness and compassion, there are still times when we feel threatened by old, conditioned patterns of reactivity that invade us like a body snatcher. “Noticing that my aggressiveness is the same strategy my mother uses to manage her anxiety, and which I seem to have inherited, has been really helpful,” says Elena, a woman in the group whose marriage has been riddled with conflict. “I see clearly how this pattern doesn’t serve me at all, but I don’t necessarily make that leap in the middle of an argument.” Conflict happens; it’s human nature. “There’s no relationship without conflict,” says Stan Tatkin, a psychotherapist and author of Wired for Love. “If you know this, then you can problem-solve.” For example, he explains, “In order for me to get what I want, I need to know what you want. If I show you that I care only about my own interests, you’re going to do the same, and that stance is the stance for war. But if I know that I have to take care of you at the same time I take care of myself, which is a novel idea for many people, it’s a win– win situation.” Moreover, avoiding conflict is never a solution and only causes trouble, Tatkin adds. People can’t work things out if they don’t talk. But in order to engage in friendly conflict, they need to feel safe and secure in their relationship. Most important, he says, “They have to focus on the relation- ship, not on themselves as individuals. The relationship is a third entity that they’ve created together, and they have to decide together what works for them and what the dealbreak- ers are,” he says. “ When people feel secure, most of the things that burden others in relationship are off the table. They become more creative and free up resources in each other to do amazing things.” Interestingly, though, in longitu- dinal studies of 700 couples con- ducted by the Gottman Institute and psychologist Robert Levenson, researchers found that even happily married couples can let loose and engage in loud screaming matches without jeopardizing their marriage. “It’s a myth that anger is a predictor of divorce,” explains Carrie Cole. However, she says, “an important predictor of whether people will stay together is their ability to repair after an arg ument—and how quickly they make amends.” Repairs, which may involve an apolog y, humor to defuse the tension, or another tactic the partners agree upon, seem to be most effective when there’s a strong foundation of friend- ship and trust. In research on same- sex couples, Gottman and Levenson found that gay and lesbian couples are more upbeat and affectionate during conflict, and use fewer hostile, con- trolling emotional tactics than straight couples. They also become less physio- logically agitated when they disag ree. One reason for this, researchers con- clude, is that homosexual couples tend to value equality in their relationship more than heterosexual couples. Regardless of a couple’s sexual orientation, a recent study published in Hormones and Behavior shows that mindfulness helps to speed up → Even happily married couples can let loose and engage in loud screaming matches without jeopardizing their marriage. April 2017 mindful 63 relationships