Pause and calm down, not pause and reload.
September 23, 2021 3:34 PM   Subscribe

The Secret To a Fight-Free Relationship. "Conventional wisdom says that venting is cathartic and that we should never go to bed angry. But couples who save disagreements for scheduled meetings show the benefits of a more patient approach to conflict."

"We can hurt one another when disagreements shove the regions of our brain that are responsible for rational thinking into the back seat. When we react without taking time to cool off, we might sting our partner to score points or defend ourselves. And, chances are, that behavior won’t bring a feeling of catharsis. At best, venting may provide a temporary mood boost—but in many cases it doesn’t accomplish even that. In a seminal psychology study, participants who sat quietly right after their anger was provoked became less angry than those who were instructed to vent.

Instead of treating anger as steam that needs to be released, we seem to be better off running out the clock on it. "
posted by storybored (32 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite

Some people like to save their disagreements so they can bring them up at 11:50 on Sunday nights.
posted by brachiopod at 4:17 PM on September 23 [43 favorites]

Venting, which I do rarely, often entails that point-scoring aspect, and generally ends with me apologising and sometimes even acknowledging the point-scoring behaviour. A conscious effort to hold back, go away, and consider, on the other hand, definitely works when I manage to do it.

We talk about things like resentment, rage, etc. as 'building up', and are used to thinking in terms of an inevitable explosion, eruption, catharsis or whatever. It's important to question that assumption, I think.
posted by pipeski at 4:17 PM on September 23 [10 favorites]

I'm in a healthy 20-years and counting relationship. Whenever I'm annoyed by something she does, I try to save it for a future moment when I'm not angry or annoyed, when I can say "it bothers me when you do X" without as much emotion or acrimony.
Works so far.
posted by signal at 4:53 PM on September 23 [21 favorites]

Listen, if I could tamp down my automatic “MURDER HIM INSTANTLY WITH MY WORDS” instinct and delay my response by even one minute when I’m pissed (or let’s be honest, mildly annoyed), that’d solve a world of problems. Delaying those convos for months seems… well, like a recommendation directed at Someone Other Than Me.

Still, the “relaxing is better than venting” advice - something I’ve definitely heard before - is worth considering.
posted by obfuscation at 5:48 PM on September 23 [7 favorites]

When I was a kid it seemed my parents only ever seemed to fight about money, and it would happen randomly - just triggered and vented. Otherwise they got along fine.

My significant other and I have a monthly finances meeting. We've been doing it for nearly 15 years. We have our own bank accounts and a joint one for joint stuff, and we have a good understanding of what is and isn't joint stuff.

Like a good meeting, there's a *bit of prep work beforehand* where one of us puts everything into a spreadsheet and we get all the paperwork together and such. This is really important - sometimes the life-balance is that one of us simply does everything and then provides something of a report to the other.

We talk through what we've spent and what we see upcoming, and how we are tracking against the goals we've set ourselves. And like a good meeting we finish with some agreed and allocated actions - usually this is about moving money between our personal and joint accounts.

Sometimes these have been tense and involved argument, but there's usually a range of things on the table so that there's room to give and take and admit mistakes and save face.

It helps that we've mostly earned about the same amount each, although we've both had years here and there where one has supported the other and so we've had to change the understanding of how things are paid for. We've been fortunately that's balanced out.

Our teenager has started to sit in on these too - so that he knows what's going on in the family finances, and to prepare him for future adulting.

We'll still talk about money and finances at different times, including 'why did you waste your money on that' comments, but the regular meeting gives us a solid base to communicate on and link the little stuff to the bigger picture.

Anyway, I recommend it.
posted by jjderooy at 5:55 PM on September 23 [32 favorites]

"Thanks for coming to the Monday Anger Meeting. Let's go around the room and introduce ourselves."

"I'm your wife, Jim."

"Uh, right, yeah. Okay, present are me, Linda and Oreo."

"The cat isn't part of the meeting."

"Um, but the meeting rules say we need a quorum of 3, so..."


"Well, let's just move on to reading the minutes of the last meet--"

"Jim, please, I have a lot to do tonight. Could we just get to the part where we talk about issues bothering us?"

"Okay, okay. You can start."

"Well, I noticed that you're still leaving dirty dishes in the sink overnight. You know I've told you that bothers me, and you said you'd--"

"Wait, wait. Kitchen-related matters are for the Wednesday meeting. Monday meetings are for issues relating to general household cleanliness that are making us angry."

"This meeting is making me angry, Jim."

"Oh, that's good, I'll make a note on the agenda for the process meeting at the end of the month."
posted by star gentle uterus at 6:17 PM on September 23 [64 favorites]

This meeting could have been an email
posted by Kabanos at 6:49 PM on September 23 [45 favorites]

This relationship could have been an email.
posted by fairmettle at 7:22 PM on September 23 [32 favorites]

This email is more of a relationship than I wanted.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:23 PM on September 23 [35 favorites]

Very interesting read. For me and my partner, typically if one upsets the other, the upset person walks away rather than escalating. This is potentially an autistic reaction of “I have too many emotions to Interact With Another Human right now.” Anyway it definitely prevents us ever having big fights. The longest exchange of snippiness has probably been a total of four lines before one of us just walks away.

Then, after we’ve cooled down, we come back and explain what was upsetting (and the other person explains why they did what they did), apologies are made as appropriate, and we come to an understanding and agreement on what to do next time this situation arises. I don’t think this has ever taken longer than an hour. Often it takes like 10 minutes. So I don’t personally see the value in this system, as our disagreements can be resolved very easily in the moment, but I can see how it would be useful for couples that take a lot longer to cool down and then may have trouble bringing it up again when they’re calm. Glad people have found a system that works for them.
posted by brook horse at 8:42 PM on September 23 [9 favorites]

Before I read the article, I was thinking that the idea was if you are mad on Wednesday, maybe wait until Friday to discuss things. But no:

They would talk about their frustrations only in scheduled meetings—which they held once a year for a time, and later, every three months.

I'm glad it worked for them, but that seems like a really long time to sit on frustrations before having a discussion.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:06 PM on September 23 [17 favorites]

Also, this made me laugh given the rest of the piece:
James córdova, a psychology professor at Clark University, wants people to treat relationships the way they treat their teeth. People don’t only go to the dentist when they have a toothache; they get preventive treatment to remove the buildup of plaque and tartar that causes tooth decay.
Yes, it's like caring for your teeth, where you only brush and floss once or twice a year.
posted by star gentle uterus at 9:24 PM on September 23 [13 favorites]

I'm not sure if it's the change in approach or if getting older has reduced the level of raw emotion associated with disagreements, but either way Georgia and I have gone from having arguments somewhat frequently to basically never. I think the last time we raised our voices at each other was several years ago.

That's not to say we never have disagreements or get annoyed at each other, it's just that nobody is treating it as some existential crisis worthy of getting hurt or angry about, so we can discuss it calmly or set it to one side and come back later when we're less tired or emotionally invested in the situation.
posted by wierdo at 11:30 PM on September 23 [4 favorites]

So, schedule a weekly 1-on-1, like the one you have with your manager at work?
posted by acb at 1:09 AM on September 24 [2 favorites]

Via Zoom from a different room, for the authentic experience.
posted by pipeski at 2:06 AM on September 24 [10 favorites]

I nearly married someone who would create and provoke arguments; a bit of probing unearthed the reason - a really dysfunctional family where everyone fought and argued constantly; she considered no arguments a problem and not normal.
posted by unearthed at 2:56 AM on September 24 [8 favorites]

My wife and I have been together for 21 years and have basically never had a fight, if you define a fight as angry words spoken with raised voices. Neither of us are wired that way (my parents never really fought, in front of us kids, anyway, so when I hear adults shouting at each other in anger I assume something is terribly wrong and my anxiety goes through the roof), and speaking personally it would be difficult if not impossible for me to stay with a partner if we were having the sorts of arguments I read about online or even hear about from friends. One of my oldest pals once told me his line in the sand is when fights go from being "that was a stupid thing to do" to "you're stupid," but my takeaway was that he and his partner were having the first sort of fight all the time and I just wouldn't be able to deal with that.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:57 AM on September 24 [7 favorites]

>once a year for a time, and later, every three months

This sounds like it should be filed under "Are the straights ok?"
posted by MiraK at 5:26 AM on September 24 [11 favorites]

I used to be an ‘eviscerate’ verbal fighter, much like my father. For myself, I’ve instituted the Three Day Rule. If something makes me Big Mad or Big Hurt, I now tell the other person I need to sit with things a bit, and schedule a time three days out to discuss. I’ve noticed that one the first day of contemplation I’m still Big Mad and my desired course of action is an extreme in one direction. The second day, I’m still Big Mad but my desired course of action is extreme in an opposite direction, but by day three, I’ve hit both some level of internal and relational understanding, and a more mutually compassionate course of action.

It’s curious - a number of people I’ve told about this have started implementing the Three Day Rule for themselves. And when I have to call on the Three Day Rule with my close persons, they know what I am doing and are willing to wait — I suppose because they now have a history with me of (a) knowing the issue will be addressed and (b) will be done with language and understanding that supports a mutually respectful course of action.

I also cannot imagine waiting a year or a month to address things. A friend had to point out to me once that some marriages are more like business arrangements - two people who have similar social interests and lifestyle goals, but whose primary emotional support relationships are outside of the marriage. Not something I would ever want, but I guess that would align to the scheduled grievance meetings.
posted by Silvery Fish at 5:28 AM on September 24 [11 favorites]

I have been married nearly twenty years; while a cooling-off period is a very important thing to have, I also can't imagine waiting months to discuss real issues in the relationship.

For a long time my spouse and I would do a date night at least once a month where we'd usually chat about some of the stuff on our minds and unburden ourselves; we've tried some of the more formal State of the Relationship-style meetings and discussions and they always came across as too forced or artificial for us (honestly, the imagined dialogue above sounds familiar). Honestly, what has helped us the most in our relationship is a good shared sense of humor, a desire to be considerate of the other through our actions and an effort not to take ourselves so seriously. Also, watching three marriages of close friends of ours implode spectacularly through infidelity, hidden debt, drugs, etc has scared us into avoiding some of the bad behavior that led to it.

We've fought for sure, and had periods where we were unsure of our relationship. But, but we always made an effort to share the mental load and labor of a committed relationship, raising kids and running a household. That means being attuned to whether both partners feel they're getting a fair deal in the relationship. Any imbalance should be discussed and mitigated as soon as the person affected picks up on it. Honestly, after twenty years, we both know what is a trigger for the other person and work to avoid it.

It is nice to read an article about a married couple who have been able to manage and move past many of the struggles and arguments that sink relationships, whatever I think of their strategy. It's a nice change from the constant marriage is terrible articles that pop up in the media.
posted by fortitude25 at 6:34 AM on September 24 [6 favorites]

fortitude25: "For a long time my spouse and I would do a date night at least once a month where we'd usually chat about some of the stuff on our minds and unburden ourselves;"

We do this too, not as a decision but spontaneously. Many of our dates include talking about heavy, relationship issues for which there really is no other appropriate setting.
posted by signal at 8:26 AM on September 24

My second-to-last relationship was all about fighting. We fought constantly, and always spiraled into fighting about the fight, what you said when we were fighting 15 minutes ago, or yesterday, and then about the response (or the tone or the specific language) to the complaint about what you said 15 minutes ago, etc, ad nauseam, until we didn't remember what the original fight was about. It was exhausting.
A lot of the relationship was long distance. Once I went to see her, at great expense and effort, to spend 5 days with her at the far end of 28 hours of flights and connections. 1.5 days of these 5 were spent not speaking to each other, just sitting and fuming in her small studio apartment. I have no idea what that fight was about.
It's the only time I've broken up (it was mutual) with somebody who I love and loves me because we just can't take it anymore.
I think that has made me very fight averse, I pick up on signs of a fight developing, and short circuit it.
One thing I've learned is that I don't care about winning fights. I'm not in some sort of competition with my wife. I'm happy losing arguments with her, backing down, seeing her side, etc., I love our life together and basically just want more of what we already have.
posted by signal at 8:36 AM on September 24 [9 favorites]

A lot of the relationship was long distance. Once I went to see her, at great expense and effort, to spend 5 days with her at the far end of 28 hours of flights and connections. 1.5 days of these 5 were spent not speaking to each other, just sitting and fuming in her small studio apartment. I have no idea what that fight was about.

I had pretty much the same experience once; the ratio of traveling to arguing was terrible. Neither of us was a bad person, but in hindsight we were just not compatible with each other, and I wish we had gone our mutual ways earlier rather than staying together long past when we should have.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:16 AM on September 24

In my experience, people who believe that anger "has to be let out" use this belief as an excuse to treat other people however they want instead of taking responsibility for their own anger.

I try to teach my kid that anger is a useful sign that something is not right, but that you can't figure out what the something is until you're calm. I wish adults would learn this.
posted by xylothek at 9:51 AM on September 24 [16 favorites]

“Letting out your anger” seems to be part of the same fallacy as “being true to your authentic self”: the idea that, somewhere beneath the surface of one's psyche, there is an authentic, immutable ur-You, a primal entity that will always prevail, and that any attempts to deny it will only make things worse.

(The opposite idea is that your anger is a fleeting thing, and the closest thing existing to Your True Self is the sum of your actions, which you create every moment. Or as someone said, thoughts become actions, actions become habits, habits become character.)
posted by acb at 10:13 AM on September 24 [9 favorites]

I try to teach my kid that anger is a useful sign that something is not right, but that you can't figure out what the something is until you're calm. I wish adults would learn this.

Emphatic Yes. My parenting mentor had an aphorism for this: A person can’t do right until they think right. A person can’t think right until they feel right.
posted by Silvery Fish at 10:37 AM on September 24 [6 favorites]

"This there gonna be meetings?"
[pauses] "Of course!"
"No meetings."
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:43 AM on September 24

Hmm, I'm a big believer in acknowledging and communicating my feelings in the moment, from moment to moment. I do believe that authenticity is important for a healthy relationship, and even as a sign of respect for the person I'm with.

For instance, if something that they said has made me angry (... and I'm by no means a someone who can see it coming on, I usually know I'm angry because I catch myself yelling or digging in my heels already) - anyway, when I do catch myself, I take a breath, tell myself in explicit words inside my head that I am feeling angry. Then I'll say to the other person, "Give me a few minutes, I'm feeling a little angry and I'd like to calm down." And then after the few minutes I'll thank them for giving me the space to calm down, and I'll usually give them an explanation for what made me angry and what I can see about their side of things, and we'll continue the conversation from before.

I think this kind of moment-to-moment authenticity in what we are feeling is important for the health of the relationship, and it's also important for our own emotional health. If I don't admit to what I am feeling and why, the other person can feel shut out (at best) or gaslit (at worst). I've been around too many people who don't acknowledge what they're feeling, because that makes them feel too vulnerable, and because they're very invested in being "the logical one" to admit to having any emotions even to themselves. It's total shit being in relationships with that kind of person! Some people won't acknowledge what they feel because they think it's bad or a weakness or simply that the feeling they are having is bad/wrong/weak/not allowed, and that sort of denial is no less damaging to the relationship.

And if I don't acknowledge my feelings explicitly to myself, that's just denial, it pushes feelings down into the unconscious realm from where they WILL get acted out in ways I can't control. I have to "let my feelings out" by acknowledging and accepting and working through them in order to stop acting out unconscious feelings without my knowledge.
posted by MiraK at 11:48 AM on September 24 [1 favorite]

I’d love to be able to do this, but my problem has always been my super crappy memory — 3 days later I might remember how I felt but never enough specific details to describe any sort of cause-and-effect.
posted by bjrubble at 12:55 PM on September 24 [3 favorites]

conventional wisdom: if you're mad at your partner, cool off and then talk about the thing you want to talk about later

the Atlantic: here's 10 paragraphs about this one weird couple that schedules their heart-to-hearts on very rare occasions and also a psychology professor shilling his worksheet in lieu of couples therapy and also did we mention that if you're mad at your partner, you should try cooling off

We can hurt one another when disagreements shove the regions of our brain that are responsible for rational thinking into the back seat.

I also hate this bullshit. having emotions does not naturally mean you're irrational nor does it mean that your reasoning is inherently faulty. having not enough emotional regulation can lead to anti-social behaviors but this biomechanistic ideation of 'rational brain tissue' vs 'emotional brain tissue' is neither helpful nor accurate, and is the kind of belief that spawns shit like 'facts don't care about your feelings.' not to mention how foundational it is to the toxically masculine invalidation of feelings of hurt/pain/fear/etc

He cites research from the psychologist John Gottman, who has found that stable and happy marriages have a roughly 5-to-1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.

lol no link, no cite, and definitely no mention of the issue of replication particularly in psychology which is one of the worst culprits of celebrity/$$$-seeking researchers looking to ink a self-help book deal

and, looking into it for even just a minute, that Gottman formula totally failed to replicate lol
posted by paimapi at 1:26 PM on September 24 [5 favorites]

Another vote for cooling off and then coming back around - a great deal of the time I'll poke at things while I'm cooling off and realize that the thing I thought I was mad about isn't actually the issue, or that it's tied to larger issues.

I hadn't known the Gottman thing didn't replicate. Interesting. I think the idea of 'just lots of small positive interactions' resonates for myself and my spouse, so we're gonna keep with it since it's working for us.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:55 PM on September 24 [2 favorites]

« Older Dun dun dun dun...dah dah dah dah   |   Anita Mui Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments