Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: My family has been under sustained stress for the last five years — moves, job losses, and medical issues with our parents and grown siblings. My husband doesn’t fight fair — he gets nasty and makes personal attacks. I have been at a loss about how to handle this constructively.
My therapist recently recommended a book called “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” by John Gottman. It is a bit repetitive, and sort of self-help-y. But it has been really effective at helping me recognize what is reasonable to say and do in these situations, and more important, how to nurture the really good parts of our relationship while we face these issues. Just wanted to pass that along.
DEAR UNDER STRESS: Thanks! The Gottman Institute has been on my radar for years. The breakthrough in his/their work is recognizing that contempt is what breaks a marriage (even when the couple technically stays together). I haven’t seen anything in my years of mail-reading to contradict that finding.
I’m glad the book has been effective, and grateful for the chance to mention it — it has been a while.
RE: FIGHTING FAIR: Could you offer some insight as to what fighting fair entails?
DEAR ANONYMOUS: Short version: Fighting fair means discussing the area of disagreement versus attacking the person you disagree with. “You always … “; “You never … “; “There you go again … “; “What are you, stupid?”-type attacks are anathema to intimacy. Here’s the link to Gottman’s site: gottman.com. Harriet Lerner’s “Dance” series also is well respected: harrietlerner.com/books.
RE: FAIR FIGHTING: Do you think political parties could take a few lessons on fighting fair?
DEAR TIMELY: Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. Hahaha. Ha.
DEAR CAROLYN: Do you think some of your questions are fake? I’ve gotten that vibe a couple times. I didn’t really mind, though, because even if I thought the question was fake I also felt it raised an issue that really could come up for people, and you answered it well.
DEAR REAL: Thank you. I think it’s impossible that I’ve done this for 20 years without publishing any fakes. I decided a long time ago not to worry about it — in part because I can’t prevent it, but also because, like you said, if it brings up an issue that’s relevant to some people, then it doesn’t matter where the question came from.
Funny thing — sometimes I do suspect I’m reading a fake because someone’s fiercely held position just seems too out-there to be real, but I answer it anyway because it’s compelling in some way or because it comes up in a chat and the time pressure means I don’t get to be as picky. Then, boom, I get a wave of people defending the “out-there” position just as fiercely as the original writer, if not more so.
For example, this restaurant question (http://bit.ly/BadTipper) seemed suspect. I answered anyway, and outrage letters poured in defending the letter-writer’s behavior as perfectly acceptable. (No, it wasn’t.) After years of this, it’s rare I see anything as too awful for at least some people to defend. [Cough.[
Email Carolyn at email@example.com or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.