Fighting for Your Love - 2/14/00
Tue Feb 15 10:15:39 EST 2000
from: Smart Marriages
David Olson will present the findings of this survey of 21,000 couples
at a keynote and workshop in Denver at Smart Marriages. - diane
Fighting for your love Nobody likes to fight. But if a couple can explore
differences without exploding, they're more likely to stay together than
who ignore problems.
H.J. Cummins; Staff Writer
Star-Tribune Newspaper of the Twin Cities Mpls.-St. Paul
With apologies to romantics, here's a thought to ponder on Valentine's
not love, but arguing, that is pivotal to happy marriages.
"After all, we know that all couples who marry are in love," said David
University of Minnesota family social-science professor and co-author of
"Empowering Couples: Building on Your Strengths."
"Yet 50 percent of them divorce. And the biggest predictor is how well
able to work through their differences."
Olson and others are quick to point out that thoughtful love and careful
conflict are two sides of the same coin: Loving well builds up reservoirs
fondness that help couples get through tough times; arguing well avoids
of scorched-earth disagreements that drain that reservoir dry.
But marriage counselors and researchers worry that too many couples
disagreement part, hurting their shot at happiness. And that concern has
build a cottage industry among counselors and clergy that involves couple
questionnaires - to find likely sore spots - and then step-by-step
how to talk problems out.
One of the first and biggest is PREPARE/ENRICH, a program for engaged and
married couples developed by Olson. Another is PREP (Prevention and
Enhancement Program) from the Center for Marital and Family Studies at
University of Denver.
Their records are impressive. Olson can predict with 85 percent accuracy
of the engaged couples who take his PREPARE questionnaire will split up
three years. And in a five-year study in Denver, PREP couples cut their
divorce by two- thirds by following the program's lessons in
Even so, some experts have reservations. Much of that data represents
who seek out the programs, they say, not a real cross section.
And they suggest other limitations.
"For the great majority of couples, taking the test is exactly the right
to do," said Pauline Boss, a University of Minnesota professor of family
science. "But it is not sufficient for couples where there is potential
addictions and abuse, for example. Premarital inventories may be missing
Constance Ahrons, senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families
Berkeley, Calif., has a similar concern.
"I've had couples come in [after a program] and say to me, `It sounded
we really tried to talk and listen to each other better,' " Ahrons said.
they say, `We can't seem to hold onto that in the middle of a fight,' or,
doesn't take away some real changes that need to take place in this
this relationship.' "
Still, in these days of 40 to 50 percent divorce rates and reports of less
marriage satisfaction among couples who stay together, many people say
kinds of practical programs are a great help.
A string of recent research helps explain the appeal:
- Couples who never fight are the likeliest to divorce. That indicates
not facing their problems.
- Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Instead, couples need to
and when to agree to disagree.
- Happy couples have as many differences of opinion as divorcing couples.
"Every couple has about 10 `irreconcilable differences' - who to vote
church to go to, how much money to save," said Diane Sollee, director of
Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education in Washington, D.C.
"The reason couples divorce is they don't know how to deal with those
differences," she said. "Even if you switch partners, you'll still have
irreconcilable differences, and you're going to like those less. Because
top irreconcilable difference will be the children from your first
Based on their compatible PREPARE scores last summer, newlyweds Tim and
Knutson have reason to expect fewer disagreements than many couples.
Prior Lake couple believe it's mostly their commitment to talking through
differences that bodes well for them.
"I think we come from similar families, who set a good example," Rachel
saw my parents argue, but they never yelled, and I saw them come to some
The Knutsons said they have spotted one conflict already: family finances.
Rachel is not interested and wishes Tim would just handle everything; Tim
doesn't want to make big decisions without her.
"So sometimes I just have to say, `Give me 10 minutes, Rach,' and then we
talk," Tim said.
Why are so many couples struggling these days?
Some say it's because until recently, husbands and wives entered marriage
on their set traditional roles. Now, for better or worse, almost
everything in a
relationship is up for negotiation.
Others say we've been suckered by cultural fairy tales.
"We bought the Cinderella story, and we think a good marriage is a
has no conflict," said Britton Wood, of Fort Worth, Texas, former
of the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment. "In fact, marriage
probably going to bring out more anger than any other relationship,
married couples are closer, and they deal with more things together than
None of which is to say that divorce is always wrong. Olson said he
advise any single couple based on the aggregate numbers in his studies.
does see some marriages in serious trouble, he said, "and what's sad is
both people say they are either unhappy or very unhappy. It's a big
and it will bring that person down."
John Gottman, author of "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,"
that an unhappy marriage increases people's chances of getting sick by
percent and shortens their lives an average of four years.
Couples can learn a good way to argue, Olson and others say. Most
some variation on a process that walks couples through talking,
then looking for solutions.
It's a tightly choreographed process because it has to overcome the human
"fight-or-flight" instinct in the face of conflict. But over time, the
begin to feel more natural to couples, the programs say, or couples
the important principles to fit their style.
Here's a hypothetical situation:
A wife raises a concern, probably in less than a minute. The husband then
paraphrases that point back to her, demonstrating that he was really
Then he can make a point, and she must respond with a paraphrase. The
keep going until they feel they've said all they had to say.
A lot of feelings come out during the quick back-and-forth, which is
it takes to find a solution. For example, the wife may complain that her
never takes out the trash. But after talking, the couple discover that
household chores, per se, that she's upset about. It is that to her, the
represent her fear that her husband won't support her wish to go back to
now that their baby is getting older. Then they discover that, indeed, he
uncomfortable with putting the baby in day care. (As Olson says of such
conflicts: "The problem isn't really the problem.")
The next, and deliberately separate, phase is to look for answers. The
suggest working only part time. The couple may divide household chores
them or agree to do everything together on Saturday mornings. They may
write it all down, as a kind of contract.
The final step should be to set up another meeting, where they'll use the
process to decide if they think their plan is working.
The couple made its way through a conflict that for many can become a
and recurrent source of bitterness. And they worked out a plan that they
will accommodate both their desires - while still agreeing to disagree a
Peter Fraenkel, a New York City psychologist and longtime PREP advocate,
many couples make their marriages unhappy by falling into one of these
when they disagree:
- Escalating: One partner says something critical, the other responds with
sarcasm, and then the first one comes back with contempt. Happy couples
this bad spiral, too, but they get themselves out quickly, often by
talk on hold until emotions cool. Women are more prone to escalate than
- Withdrawing: One partner refuses to be part of any disagreement, made
uncomfortable by any conflict. Men are more prone to this, and their
often looks like detachment. That gives a wife the impression that her
isn't paying attention or that he doesn't care about her feelings. In
men are just as engaged; they're just not talking.
- Mind reading: The partners assume the worst. A wife assumes that
husband routinely comes home late for supper, he has no respect for her.
Instead, he simply may be facing a big deadline. When these couples take
premarital questionnaires, they assume they disagree on almost everything
when they don't.
- Disparaging: One partner habitually insults the other's opinions with
cracks as: "That's stupid," or "How could you possibly understand
- Kitchen-sinking: Couples pile up their complaints over time and bring
up with every argument. Such as: "I don't like your mother, and I don't
her cooking, and I don't like your cooking, and why don't we go out more,
why don't you handle our money better?"
Laurie Netznik said she was a withdrawer before she and Dave Netznik were
married (two years ago Monday). It's a second marriage for both.
"This was a big issue in my first marriage," Laurie said. "We always had
a winner and a loser. So I'd get scared of disagreements and basically
hide from them."
Laurie's apprehension registered on her PREPARE questionnaire, so the
couple worked on that in follow-up sessions with St. Louis Park marriage
family therapist JoAnn Kraft.
"She and Dave worked to reassure me there were other options," Laurie
when Dave senses her withdrawing, he'll hold her hand and coax her to
rather than clam up.
"That's OK with me to play that role," Dave said. "And I think we both
other stay on track with whatever we're talking about - money, religion,
One overarching principle gets couples through almost any disagreement,
Olson, David Olson's daughter and "Empowering Couples" co-author:
"Just remember to ask yourself: Is it more important that I be `right' or
Building on Your Strengths
- By: David Olson, professor of family social science at the University of
Minnesota, and his research associate and daughter, Amy Olson.
- Publisher: Life Innovations; 226 pages; $24.95, including shipping and
- Review: The book covers the top 10 marital issues listed in a survey of
couples and the top 10 strengths found in happy couples. It includes
help couples understand their relationships and exercises for
- To find: 1-800-331-1661; http://www.lifeinnovations.com.
Take some time to consider the communication habits within your marriage
this 10-point quiz. Each spouse should answer the questions separately,
compare your answers. See the scoring below. .
Yes No 1. I am very satisfied with how we talk to each other. ( ) ( ) 2.
creative in how we handle our differences. ( ) ( ) 3. We feel very close
other. ( ) ( ) 4. My partner is seldom too controlling. ( ) ( ) 5. When
discussing problems, my partner understands
my opinions and ideas. ( ) ( ) 6. I am completely satisfied with the
I receive from my partner. ( ) ( ) 7. We have a good balance of leisure
together and separately. ( ) ( ) 8. My partner's friends or family seldom
with our relationship. ( ) ( ) 9. We agree on how to spend money. ( ) ( )
agree on how we express our spiritual values
and beliefs. ( ) ( ) .
If both of you answer "yes" to a question, that's a strength in your
- 8-10 strengths: Congratulations! You have mostly strengths.
- 5-7 strengths: You have several important strengths to be proud of.
how you can turn the other issues into strengths.
- 0-4 strengths: You need to talk more about creating more couple
you are struggling, you should consider seeking marital counseling.
Source: "Empowering Couples: Building on Your Strengths," by David Olson
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