Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyJuly 3, 2024

How we fight: Lessons from the Love Lab

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

How are we supposed to know how to ‘do’ conflict with people we care about? Has a single one of us been taught a healthy way to do it?

In 1986, psychologist John M. Gottman built an apartment laboratory at the University of Washington that was later dubbed the “Love Lab”. The Love Lab was equipped with a foldout sofa, working kitchen, phone, and TV, and couples were invited to spend the weekend there under observation. 

Using video cameras and physiological sensors, Gottman and his colleagues would observe the partners’ physical responses to each other, like heart rate and blood pressure, and their social/emotional responses, like facial expressions and the words and tones they used. 

The team at the Love Lab wanted to find out if the outcome of a relationship could be predicted based on how the couple treated each other early on. Sure enough, in time, The Gottman Institute developed the ability to predict with a stunning 91% accuracy which couples will or won’t make it after observing just a short conversation between them. The key factor they found in determining a relationship’s survival? How we communicate when we’re in conflict with each other.

11,000 kms away from the Love Lab and 34 years after its formation, I am sitting in damp heaving traffic on the bays of Wellington, beside my exasperated partner, equating him forgetting to buy toilet paper to him not loving me.

Let me take responsibility for what I can from the start: I am not being reasonable. I am not interested in his side of things, I am not open to hearing how his day has been or how this conversation is going for him. As he’s speaking, I’m becoming furious and silent, pushing down the urge to get out of the car and run down the gridlocked motorway screaming. I stay in my seat, stare ahead, my face lit red by the shunting cars in front of me, and through my grinding teeth say: “If you loved me, you would have remembered the fucking toilet paper.” 

Clinicians using methods and modalities created by The Gottman Institute have worked with over 15 million relationships and The Gottman Method is globally recognised as the premier relationship system used by therapists. The Love Lab still exists as a place which offers therapy, seminars and resources to help people improve the ways they navigate conflict. 

One of the key findings to come out of The Gottman Institute is aptly and ominously named “The Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse” to describe destructive communication patterns between partners. These are:

Criticism eg, “You have never once in your life bought toilet paper. It’s like you just don’t care.”

Contempt eg, “Have you ever even heard of toilet paper? Do you know what section it lives in at the shop? Do you think fairies deliver it to that basket in our bathroom?”

Defensiveness eg, “Well I did the shopping last week, and I’ve been cooking dinners recently, so I don’t get why you’re complaining.”

Stonewalling eg, [Looks down] [Shrugs] “Well there’s no point in bothering to do anything if you’re just going to hassle me either way.”

Three weeks after toiletpaper-gate, I’m sitting looking out over the wet and wintered botanical gardens, on the first morning of a four-day course on conflict resolution at work. I’m absent-mindedly writing “Connecting through conflict” in careful cursive on the front of my new notebook when the facilitator asks us, “What is your personal relationship to conflict?” 

It’s a question I quickly realise I have never considered before. My heart starts to race. We’re put into pairs and given three minutes each to share our answer with each other. I’m paired with a middle-aged man who opts to go first. He tells me about his childhood, his parents, his ex-wife, his current wife, his colleagues, his builder, his barista. 

The facilitator calls time to swap over and flips his sand timer, but my buddy keeps going. I glance at the timer while he talks until I can’t hear his words over the sound of every grain of my sand crashing down into the glass bulb below. On the outside, I’m smiling politely, making intrigued hmmm noises and laughing in all the right places. Inside, I am burning with rage. And it’s here I realise, at 2 minutes and 38 seconds into what should have been my time to speak: this is my relationship to conflict.

I get home from the workshop and try a different tack with my partner. I speak about my pain rather than my judgments, I ask questions instead of blaming. It’s awkward, and far from perfect. We stumble through like baby deer on ice, but we both manage to stay; we do our best to listen to each other. At one point, I hear myself valiantly admit, “I don’t think it was about the toilet paper.”

How are we supposed to know how to “do” conflict with the people we care about? Has a single one of us ever been taught or modelled a healthy way to do it? From birth, as our brains are being formed, we watch our carers do what they’re doing and we assume it is the right – maybe the only – way to live our lives. We see them fight, or we see them ignore each other, snap, shout, freeze, leave. We might see them physically hurt each other. We might sense, from a very young age, that conflict can never be a safe thing. 

We grow into adults who don’t know how to have safe disagreements with others. We don’t know how to lean in without getting hurt, or hurting each other. With little guidance, it becomes our responsibility to learn new and better ways of being humans together in partnership. 

Brene Brown recently shared a process she and her husband try to do each day. When they get home after work, they quantify where they are out of 100 in terms of energy, capacity, patience, care. If one of them is at, say, 20/100, the other will consider where they’re at – do they have enough to carry the extra load for the other? If the other is also at 20/100, or if they’re both at any number that makes up less than 100/100 collectively, they sit down and make a plan for how to be kind to each other for the evening. 

I love how realistic this is. It’s not, “Let’s make a plan to have an awesome evening together,” it’s not “Let’s see how much we can still tick off our exponentially growing life-admin list.” It’s literally, “We need a plan to make sure we’re kind to each other.” 

We live in a country where police attend a family violence episode an average of every four minutes; I’m aware that I’m lucky to have the time, energy, safety and support network to slow down and take an in-depth look at my relationship to conflict. I have a partner who encourages my exploration in this way, and is open to trying different ways of communicating with me. Most importantly, I have a partner I feel physically and emotionally safe with. The more each of us understands our relationships to conflict, the more we can lead a different way of doing things. We can state boundaries louder, we can speak up for ourselves and others, hopefully creating a safer place for more people. 

What I’ve ultimately learned from this work is that leaning into uncomfortable conversations with someone means taking a step towards your relationship to them, even though it might feel like the opposite at the time. Being in partnership means being with the actual person we are with, not who we might imagine them to be. 

Who they are – their flesh and blood and imperfections and jealousy and that loud way they chew and their propensity to ask a question just as you put your headphones on. That imperfect creature is the one you chose, so don’t forget to choose them. Don’t forget to help them feel chosen. 

Keep going!