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Your Brain Works Against You When You Argue With Your Significant Other. Here’s How to Fix That, According to an Expert

6 minute read
Belinda Luscombe is an editor at large at TIME, where she has covered a wide swath of topics, but specializes in interviews, profiles, and essays. In 2010, she won the Council on Contemporary Families Media Award for her stories on the ways marriage is changing. She is also author of Marriageology: the Art and Science of Staying Together.

First comes love, then comes marriage (or some modern equivalent), then comes the inevitable really stupid fight you keep having over who threw whom under the carriage last time you went over to that person’s place for that thing. Spats with your significant other—there are infinite varieties—are unavoidable. But they don’t have to be so bruising or so frequent, according to Stan Tatkin, therapist, researcher and author of the new book We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection and Enduring Love.

Tatkin studies couples by filming them during a fight and then doing video microanalysis (a slow-motion, frame-by-frame examination of the footage) to see what’s really going on. Through this analysis, he has found that the human brain has a set of characteristics that can make fights with our loved ones worse—and that we can out-maneuver, to find better resolutions faster. Not to be spouse-like or anything, but here’s what you’re probably doing wrong:

You’re relying too much on your memory.

Even when you’re 100% sure you recall exactly what your spouse did that was so egregious, you’re probably mistaken, says Tatkin. “The way we record experience depends on our state of mind,” he explains. So if we were emotional or stressed when something happened, our recollections can get skewed, and then as we recall it in a heightened emotional state, the brain adds even more new color. “When people fight over memory, they’re both likely wrong in some way,” says Tatkin. “Because of this, it’s usually better to just end the fight and make up, rather than trying to figure out who is correct.”

You’re expecting perception to be objective.

You know the old “Don’t look at me like that!” “Like what?” “Like you think I’m an idiot.” “I didn’t look at you like that” argument? That’s an example of how perceptions are also unreliable—especially under stress, says Tatkin, because our brains aren’t working at full capacity or normal speed so the usual filters are not applied. “There’s a network of structures that have to talk to each other in order to correct errors,” says Tatkin. “And there has to be enough time and energy for these error-correcting parts of the brain to do their job. When people are upset with each other, they’re moving too fast and they’re under-resourced, meaning that there’s literally not enough blood—oxygen and glucose—going to those areas of the brain.” So if your counterpart believes you looked at him or her in a certain way, it’s best not to expect them to correct a faulty perception right then and there. Just let them know that you love them and don’t think they’re an idiot.

You’re overestimating how well you’re communicating.

“The brain always conserves energy,” says Tatkin. “And that means that it takes shortcuts.” People are often not expressing as clearly as they think they are—or not completely understanding the message the person they’re talking to is getting. “I may be making clarity errors with you, in thinking that you understand. You, as the listener, may be making mistakes by assuming you understood something, or linking it to something else, that may be a leap too far,” says Tatkin. Or the disconnect can be even simpler. “One word may mean something to me and mean something very different to you,” Tatkin explains. “Even on a good day, our verbal communication is poor, and we are often misunderstanding each other most of the time. This just speaks to the imperfection of human communication across the world.”

Small misunderstandings can snowball and get worse over time, unless people realize what they’re doing. Tatkin’s solution? “One way around this is to slow down. Check: ‘O.K., do you mean this? Is that what you’re trying to say when you use that word?'” He believes partners should cut each other a little more slack. He likes the phrase a colleague uses: Be curious rather than furious.

You’re not looking at each other.

According to Tatkin, couples should avoid trying to argue without looking straight into each other’s eyes. “We’re visual animals and while you’re talking, and I’m looking at your eyes and your mouth—which is something we naturally do—I can make many of those corrections” of the misunderstandings that are arising, he says. It’s something the brain does naturally without us even noticing. “But if we’re on the phone or side to side, or we’re texting, anything and everything can happen, because we can’t verify visually.” Intentions and phrases can be misunderstood, and meanings and tones of voice inaccurately inferred. Only after people get better at communicating and fighting in close proximity should they even consider working things out via text. “I’m not saying nobody should ever do that,” Tatkin clarifies. “But I’m saying people who are terrible at this ought to get the other part down first.”

You’re seeking compromise but not collaboration.

There are, of course, those fights that are not simply a matter of communication but of genuine disagreement. Whether to buy or rent. Which school to send a kid to. Netflix or Amazon Prime. Those arguments take a bit of effort to solve, says Tatkin, who this time says brains can be used productively rather than overridden. These spats are more manageable if you both agree initially that you care about each other and the outcome, he says, recommending that each partner present an argument, each acknowledge the validity of the other’s argument and then each offer a solution that builds on the other’s.

That way, “both people are engaged in a collaborative effort to come up with something better than their own idea,” he says. Often, the solution to a disagreement only has to be one that works for right now, and can be adjusted later. “If people see each other as having a mutual stake in the outcome, and that they’re respecting that, and they are giving each other their due, and that they are working towards a win-win, which means not compromise but creativity, bargaining,” says Tatkin, “then they can move the ball forward enough for the next thing, and can take this thing off the table quickly and go have lunch.” Preferably somewhere romantic.

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