It could be the way the dishwasher was loaded. Maybe you guys disagree on politics and Super Tuesday didn’t help. Or maybe one of you just got snappy. Whatever the reason, all couples fight — and it’s healthy to do so. But there’s a right way to do it, and researchers have now helpfully identified a key ingredient to fighting a good fight: empathy.
In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted seven experiments to explore how couples fight. In one, 85 people in a relationship were asked to journal daily and record arguments with their partner, rating if they felt understood and, simultaneously, how happy they were with their relationship.
A pattern began to emerge through the course of the experiments: Couples who could see where their partner was coming from were not only able to bounce back better after fights, but they were also able to view the fight as a “healthy” one. The researchers also discovered that when people didn’t feel understood by their partner, they tended to be less satisfied with their relationships in the aftermath of a fight. But here’s the really interesting part: A person doesn’t have to truly understand their partner’s position in the disagreement; they simply had to express that they empathized with their position.
“Feeling understood, regardless of whether it’s grounded in reality, can be enormously good for general well being,” Serena Chen, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author of the paper, told Quartz. “Conveying that you understand but don’t agree can go a long way. We know this, but we don’t often do it. In the heat of the moment, it’s very hard to do that. But one stands to benefit oneself if you can convey to your partner that you understand.”
This isn’t to say you should lie to your partner and nod your head in agreement with everything they say once a conversation turns sour. It simply means that partners who were willing to make the often-difficult emotional jump from feeling “right” to admitting that their partners might have a point have a leg up in resolving fights and making their relationships stronger. Toxic fights tended to have “you”-leading statements that were seen as accusatory, but if an individual tried to bridge the divide and meet in the middle, fights often went from toxic to tepid.
The researchers point out that feeling understood was not just a symptom of being a pushover, having a glow-y image of their partner, or being in a solid place relationship-wise. Empathy was the strongest buffer against people feeling like their relationship was unfulfilling because it indicated that not only were couples able to transcend the fight, but they could do it together — and their partner was invested in their collective future.
So the next time things are getting dicey with your partner, take a moment to try and get where they’re coming from. Or, as Chen puts it: “Maybe the skill you need to get good at is convincing your partner, ‘Hey, I really do get you.’” Even if you don’t.