Do you have the hardest struggles with those you love the most? Don’t you wish you could change that? And yet, we can feel like we are sinking in quicksand.

When we think of the number of interactions we have with those with whom we have intimate relationships—whether spouses, children, or our parents and extended family, it’s no wonder that there is so much potential for developing conflict, especially since we share the most central parts of our lives with them—the kitchen, the t.v.(!), the bathroom, the family car, holiday celebrations. Besides that, we care the most about those interactions, and the conflicts hit us where we live—in our hearts!

It is said that we have the same six conflicts with our spouses, over and over again. I imagine that also applies to conflicts with children (Clean up your room!  No I won’t!). It is also said that spouses will live with a heart-wrenching conflict for six years without seeking therapy, and that many at that point seek divorce instead. How sad and unnecessary this can be.

If instead we want to bring out “the better,” there is a lot of research about how to do this. John Gottman, Ph. D., University of Washington, has a team of researchers who have done thousands of observations of couples and have come up with a list of do’s and don’ts that are very effective. Here are some of those guidelines.

  • DON’T: Get defensive, criticize, stonewall, or be contemptuous (“YOU ALWAYS…” name-calling, belligerence). He’s labeled these the Four Hoursemen of the Apocalypse—sure to sink a marriage.
  • DO: Use a softened start-up (“Your mother is coming to visit, and I’d like to talk about how things can go better for all of us this time.”) Let your loved-one know what you want and, most of all, what you need, e.g., “I’d really like it if you would put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher.”
  • DO: Make many more positive than negative comments about your loved one.
  • DO: Create shared meaning. If you agree that going to church is important, go. If exercise is important, do it together if you can, or support each other to do it. If family is most important, increase family activities and feel-good times.
  • DO: Use what Gottman calls a “Repair Attempt” if you are arguing, e.g., “If I had a chance to do this over, I would have thanked you for what you did before giving any other feedback. I’m sorry.” The other half of this is that the other spouse needs to ACCEPT the Repair Attempt, e.g., “I’m glad to hear that you realize you made a mistake. Thank you for apologizing.”
  • DO: Accept and respect your partner’s most personal hopes and dreams.
  • DO: Soothe each other. Women initiate talking about problems 80% of the time. Men, in Gottman’s findings, find it much harder biologically to calm down after getting upset than women do, so avoiding conflict is safer. That fight or flight response that allowed them to protect the camp from tigers has its shadow side.
  • DO: Take time to cool down. Either men or women may need cuddle time or time to themselves to calm down—in the midst of an argument or afterwards. If you need a time out, just tell your spouse you will be back. Don’t follow the exiting spouse to get him/her to stay home. That can escalate into violence.
  • DO: Realize that some conflicts are perpetual. She may never love your mother to your satisfaction. But the problems can be improved. Listen to what it is that she doesn’t like about your mother—maybe it’s that you always take your mother’s side in an argument between them.
  • DO: Create a sense of fairness and teamwork. Have a planned meeting for talking about issues such as this. Reward yourselves afterwards for doing so.

All these ideas are explained in a simple, digestible and inexpensive book, The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver. You can find it on Amazon. It has many exercises that couples can do together to improve their marriage, and the principles also apply to relationships between other family members.

Keep the love alive!

If you are interested in marriage counseling in Denver, contact Maria Droste Counseling Center’s intake department at 303-867-4600 or

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by Judy Wilkinson, LCSW