THE BLOG

What Couples Really Fight About

05/01/2014 11:30 am ET | Updated Jul 01, 2014

Couples fight about nothing. Surprising as this may sound, after studying couples in the Love Lab for over 40 years, this is our conclusion. Couples don't typically argue and hurt each other's feelings when they talk about the classically stressful topics, like the budget or long-term financial and retirement planning or whether they are going to get a shared burial plot or how they are going to deal with his mother. More often arguments come out of nowhere.

This is usually how it happens:

"Why don't we watch TV together?" she says.

"Oh, that's a good idea," he says.

He's got the remote and he's channel surfing, and she says, "Leave it on that channel."

"Wait a minute," he says, "Let me just see what else is on."

And she says, "No, leave it there."

And he says, "Yeah, I will, but let me just see what else is on. I just want to see what else is on."

So she says "No, I want you to leave it there."

He says "FINE" and throws the remote in her lap.

She says, "You know, the way you said 'fine' that really hurt my feelings. What did you mean by that?"

He says, "Well, fine, you're going to have it your way, you always get it your way. You want to watch that thing, and I want to see what else is on -- could be a James Bond movie on, who knows? Quantum of Solace might be on. But you want to see this because why? Because it's educational, right?"

She answers, "Yeah, well, I don't even want to watch TV with you anymore."

"Fine," he says and storms out.

The argument is about absolutely nothing, no topic at all -- and yet there's something underneath all of this.

Fighting itself is not a bad thing. We watched thousands of couples fight, and we followed them for years to see if they stayed together in lives of quiet desperation, whether they divorced, or whether they lived happily ever after, which of course means that they still fought, just like all couples. We identified what separates the "masters," whose marriages thrived from the "disasters," whose marriages crumble. What we saw in all couples is that there are ways that we fight that produce hurt, that injure our partners. When that happens, the difference between couples who make it and couples who break up is simple: the couples who make it "repair" the relationship after they've hurt each other. The couples that don't repair those hurts end up with festering wounds that grow bigger by the day, the month and the year until they finally break the couple apart. Repair is absolutely crucial in any kind of relationship, particularly intimate relationships.

Don't apologize too soon. One mistake that couples often make is for one partner to immediately apologize for something that they've done wrong and then they are surprised when the apology doesn't work. There is a small law of relationships that we have found in our laboratory: apologies only work if the person who is apologizing understands the pain that they have caused the other. The way that they can understand that pain is to hear their partner describe it.

Start with how you felt. The way that we teach couples how to repair an emotional injury or slight hurt is, first, to talk about what they each felt during the incident. They name what feelings they had -- they don't necessarily explain those feelings, but they name them. Secondly, they each take a turn as a speaker, explaining their perception of what happened during the incident. What happened needs to be expressed not as criticism or blaming statements but rather as the experience the speaker had during the incident.

In the channel surfing episode, here's what it might sound like for the two of them to name their feelings. The wife might say, "I felt invisible, I felt like my opinions didn't matter, I felt unimportant, I felt disrespected, I felt hurt." The husband in this case might say: "Okay, well here's what I felt. I felt frustrated, I felt irritated, I felt annoyed, I felt angry, I felt a little guilty."

Next explain your perceptions. Then, when they move on to explaining their perceptions, it would sound something like this: the husband might say: "I was really wanting to watch a James Bond movie. I'd seen that it was playing in the newspaper and really wanted to see if it was on TV, and when you said to me that you wanted me to stop channel surfing, I felt frustrated at that point because I wanted to keep channel surfing until I found the James Bond movie. So I kept channel surfing and ignored your request to stop. Then I noticed in your tone of voice a lot of irritation and that made me feel even more frustrated and judged."

Next comes empathy. After the husband has presented his perception of what happened during the incident the wife needs to put herself in his shoes. She needs to try to imagine what he felt from the way he just described it and say something like, "I get it. I understand why you felt the way you felt." And then they switch roles and it is her turn to describe her perception of the situation so she might end up saying something like, "The channel surfing was really making me anxious. I began to feel confused and frustrated myself, so I asked you to stop but you just kept channel surfing. What I ended up feeling was ignored and like my needs and my feelings didn't even matter. That made me more angry and hurt because it seems like my feelings didn't even matter to you." So he then puts himself in her shoes and does the same thing. The next step is saying, "I get it. I understand why you felt the way you felt."

Taking responsibility. Then it's important for each person to acknowledge what happened during the conflict and to take responsibility for something that they contributed to it. One can do that very gently by saying, "I had been feeling: overworked, exhausted, tired, etc." Then specifically voicing what contribution he or she made to this regrettable incident. In the case of our example, the husband might acknowledge to the wife that, yes, indeed he did ignore her wishes to stop channel surfing. He did place his needs above hers, and he did make her feel devalued and ignored. He can take responsibility for that. She can take responsibility for trying to control him and preventing him from finding that James Bond movie he'd wanted to enjoy.

According to some pop psychology, it's often said that you shouldn't make yourself responsible for somebody else's feelings and that whoever has the feelings is totally responsible for them. However this is not necessarily true -- many neuroscience studies have shown that one person's response will literally change the brain waves of the other person. So, in fact, we are responsible for creating feelings in each other, and it is good to take responsibility for that -- both for the good and the bad.

Then they can apologize. And it will work. Only now can they really let it go.

Most of the time that apology will work because the other person now feels that their feelings and their perspective on what happened have been acknowledged, and they feel validated by the other partner. Then, when that other partner also apologizes because they too feel that their feelings and point of view have been validated, it is much easier for them both to accept the apology that allows forgiveness. That allows reconciliation, and then they can move on.

Avoiding the Regrettable Incident Next Time. The last step is for each partner to give a suggestion for one thing that they themselves can do differently and one thing the other person might be able to do differently next time. They each do that in order to not only repair what has just happened but to talk about ways to avoid the same thing happening again in the future.

During the 1920's in Vienna, Austria, a psychiatrist named Bluma Zeigarnik made a study of how people processed events. Her method of study was to sit in a café where the waiters remembered customers' orders without writing them down. Before they delivered those orders to the chef, the waiters would remember every single thing each person at a table had ordered. She tested that repeatedly, and their memories were ironclad. The amazing thing was that after the waiters processed an order, that is, once they gave the order to the chef, they then forgot all about it. The reason that we hold onto "regrettable incidents," and the reason they become festering wounds in our memory and in our relationships is that we haven't processed them successfully. When we haven't processed them, we remember them forever. They continue to fester like an abscess under the skin. However if we process it in the way that we've described above, we can let it go.

The key throughout the entire process is to be honest, tell your perspective and listen to your partner's perspective. When we've done that the small hurts no longer fester and threaten our relationship. We no longer need to hold on to it. It is processed. It is done. Like Bluma Zeigarnik saw in her Vienna Café: we have delivered our order to the chef, and we can forget it so we can be ready for the next table. This is how committed relationships becomes feast and not famine.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Tutu Global Forgiveness Challenge, which is a free 30-day online program developed by Desmond and Mpho Tutu to teach the practical steps to forgiveness they share in their new book, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. Learn about the campaign here, and sign up to participate yourself. Read all posts in the series here.