Respect: Good Fighters Steer Clear of Belittling

Some of the most groundbreaking research on marriage ever attempted has been conducted on this campus. In 1986, John Gottman founded a research laboratory with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health where he used video, heart-rate monitors, and measures of pulse amplitude to code the behavior and physiology of hundreds of couples at different points in their relationship. He’s done more yeomen’s work on conflict in marriage than anyone we know. Over lunch one day, we asked John what single quality was most detrimental to a couple’s well-being.

“Contempt,” he said, without thinking twice. “Contempt is so lethal to love that it ought to be outlawed.” He went on to tell us how predictive contempt is of marital turmoil and even of eventual divorce. Contempt is any belittling remark that makes your spouse feel about an inch tall. It’s often sarcastic: “Way to go, Einstein. You’re a regular genius.” In fact, it doesn’t even have to be spoken. Dr. Gottman told us that even eye rolling can be toxic. Contempt conveys disdain, disapproval, and dishonor. In short, contempt conveys disrespect. It sabotages a core element of a good fight.

Everyone wants respect. Scratch that. Everyone needs respect. We can’t have a relationship without it. An attitude of respect builds a bridge of trust between husband and wife even when they are feeling at odds. Respect does more than curb contempt, however. It helps us to listen before speaking. It drives us to understand before passing judgment.

 Empathy: Good Fighters Step into Each Other’s Shoes

For years we have traveled North America and beyond, doing marriage seminars for couples. At some point in nearly every seminar, we tell our audience that if we could press a magic button to improve their relationships instantly, it would be a button that gives them an abundance of empathy. Why empathy? Because empathy, that ability to see accurately the world from your partner’s perspective, is the most powerful, consistently rewarding action of love you can ever take. Unfortunately, empathy is in far too short supply when couples are conflicting.

Have you ever said anything like

  •  I simply don’t understand him.
  • I have no idea what would make her happy.
  • We’ll just be talking, and he blows up for no reason.
  • I don’t understand why she keeps bringing this up.

Each statement reveals a lack of understanding, a lack of empathy. But hear this: if you want to instantly and dramatically increase the odds of experiencing a good fight, you may only need to put the single core quality of empathy into practice. Why? Because research shows that 90 percent of marital spats can be resolved if all the couple does is accurately see the issue from each other’s perspective. Don’t miss this point: nine times out of ten, conflicts are resolved when couples step into each other’s shoes.

That’s the power of empathy.
The following is not an exhaustive list of what makes up a good fight, but it’s a look at four critical elements—the central, innermost essentials. They are easy to remember because their initials form an acronym that spells CORE: Cooperation, Ownership, Respect, and Empathy.

A study reported in Psychological Science discovered that, when it comes to couples, the best arguers are those who work in tandem with their partner. According to the study, the person who says “we” the most during an argument suggests the best solutions. The study cited researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who used statistical analysis to study couples. Spouses who used second-person pronouns (you) tended to- ward negativity in interactions. Those making use of first-person plural pronouns (we) provided positive solutions to problems.

The study concluded: “‘We’-users may have a sense of shared interest that sparks compromise and other ideas pleasing to both partners.

‘You’-sayers, on the contrary, tend to criticize, disagree, justify, and otherwise team with negativity.

Win-win is a frame of mind and heart that seeks mutual benefit. It’s an attitude that says, “If you win, I win too.” It’s committed to finding solutions that benefit both sides of a dispute. There’s a sense of “we” in win-win. But let’s be honest: not every dispute has a solution for both sides.

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Ownership: Good Fighters Own Their Piece of the Pie

Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker “The man who can smile when things are going badly has just thought of someone to blame it on.” Sadly, this is sometimes much too close to the truth when it comes to conflict and couples. It’s so tempting to play the blame game. Why? Because we think it will let us off the hook. So we say things like…

  • We wouldn’t be in this mess if you knew how to manage our money.
  • You’re the one who’s angry! Not me.
  • If you were ever on time, we wouldn’t have missed dinner.

When we blame our spouse (or anything else), we shift responsibility. We think our fancy footwork puts us in the clear. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Blame only exacerbates a conflict. In the boxing ring they call it blocking when you twist your shoulders to prevent an opponent’s punch from landing squarely on your torso. In a relationship we call it an excuse: “I didn’t see the bills until just now.”

The blame game is for cowards. Ownership takes courage. It takes mettle not to be a victim. Shifting blame immediately makes you powerless. But when you take ownership for your piece of the conflict pie, you’re instantly empowered to find a solution together.

You say things like:

  • It’s unfair for me to think you could balance the books with the week you’ve had.
  • I admit that I’m feeling angry here, and I don’t know what to do.I didn’t think about the traffic when I scheduled the dinner.
  • That was a mistake.


We’d all do well to take some sage advice from poet Ogden Nash:

To keep your marriage brimming With love in the loving cup, Whenever you’re wrong, admit it; Whenever you’re right, shut up.


Adapted from The Good Fight by Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott.

Copyright © 2013 Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott. Published by Worth Publishing. Used with Permission.

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