what your therapist really thinks

‘Is It a Problem That My Relationship Has No Problems?’

Photo-Illustration: James Gallagher

Dear Therapist,

Good advice-column material tends to come from conflict. My situation is a bit different.

My girlfriend and I have been dating for about ten months, and everything is going great. We are madly in love with each other, we cannot seem to find enough time to spend together, and we constantly shower each other with affection. By way of brief background, we are in our upper-30s and have each been in other long-term relationships that all involved some level of strife and all ended short of marriage. In contrast to our previous relationships, the two of us have not fought about anything and have had no significant disagreements. It’s not because we’re both inclined to avoid conflict. I am a litigator and I’m very comfortable arguing, and she is a successful, assertive professional, and neither one of us feels that we have made any sacrifice in order to avoid an argument.

I’ve always felt that arguing is a natural and good thing in a relationship, because it shows that neither partner is too much of a pushover. Perhaps that was a justification I came up with to normalize some of the conflict in my previous relationships — I don’t know. But I’ve heard others say that some level of arguing is a good thing, too.

In any event, we are now discussing marriage, and we continue to marvel at our lack of arguments. In fact, it even has us somewhat concerned. We fully expect that life will throw many challenges our way as we progress from dating to living together, marriage, kids, retirement, old age, etc. So how do we know whether we are going to be able to overcome the inevitable hardships of sharing a life together without having worked through smaller arguments as a dating couple?

We fully acknowledge that this problem is really a lack of a problem, but this is something we have both discussed and feel the need to address nonetheless. Is there anything we can or should do to test our conflict-resolution skills? Or are we being ridiculous?

Very Lucky

Dear Very Lucky,

Years ago, I saw a woman in therapy who had turned her life around. She’d gone from a constricted life to an expansive one, from loneliness and lack of purpose to connection and meaning. For a while she seemed thrilled, reborn — but then she began to worry.

It was hard for her to enjoy any of the ways her life had changed, because she was used to viewing the world from a place of deficit, envy, and loneliness. As much as people say they want change, they also resist it for various reasons, one of which is that it’s hard to let go of what’s familiar. If you’re used to feeling alone, or abandoned; if you already know what it’s like for people to disappoint or reject you — it may not feel good, but at least there are no surprises. At least you know the customs in your homeland.

Once you step into foreign territory, though — you spend time with reliable people; you start sleeping well and taking care of your body; you get your finances in order and pay your bills on time; you meet people whom find you appealing and interesting — you might feel lost, confused, anxious, disoriented. All of a sudden, nothing’s familiar. You have no landmarks, nothing to go by, and all of the predictability of the world you’re used to is gone. The place you came from may not be great — it might, in fact, be pretty awful — but at least you know exactly what you’ll get there (disappointment, abandonment, chaos, isolation, criticism, failure).

It’s common for people with unhappy histories to feel anxious around happiness, to be wary of feeling good because of the fear that joy will always be taken away. They come to expect disaster just around the corner, so instead of leaning into the goodness that comes their way, they become hypervigilant, always waiting for something to go wrong. They believe that the second they get too comfortable — whoosh! — the other shoe will drop. Joy isn’t pleasure; it’s anticipatory pain.

I wonder if you’re having a similar experience, Very Lucky. You and your girlfriend both have a history of conflictual relationships, and now this lack of conflict feels foreign. You’re “madly in love,” but you’re both prone to question: Can we trust this? Or are we doomed?

The answer, it turns out, is: It depends.

You’ve been dating for a mere ten months and are blissfully falling in love. I’m not concerned that you aren’t arguing in this stage of your courtship, when you’re both under a spell, enchanted by the other, marveling at those mysterious forces of lust and simpatico that bring people together. Frankly, if you were arguing during this delightful phase, I might be concerned. In other words, your lack of arguments may feel unsettling to you, but that’s actually the much more typical dynamic between infatuated couples.

That said, I want to help you look a bit closer at what it means to “argue.” Though you and your girlfriend may be assertive in your careers, this doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be avoidant at home. Professional confrontation isn’t the same as personal confrontation. Both the stakes (at home: vulnerability, abandonment) and the object (at work: to “win,” to convince others of your point of view) are different. In well-functioning relationships, disagreements are unavoidable — your needs will butt up against your partner’s and vice versa; your perspectives and desires and world views will clash — but the object isn’t to win or convince as it is in court or the boardroom. More important, in the personal realm, the measure of a couple’s conflict isn’t so much how often it happens but how it happens.

As children, our models for conflict are often our parents and, if we’re lucky, we’re witness to, and sometimes a part of, a process called “rupture and repair.” When there’s a rupture, how does it get resolved? In your household, VL, when your parents experienced a “rupture” (say, one of them made an insensitive remark or disappointed the other; one was acting like a jerk after a stressful day; both had wildly different ideas about how to handle an in-law or child or money), did you see them make a “repair” (an apology, a talking-through of the problem, a taking of responsibility, an agreement to disagree, a coming back together with a kind word or hug)? Likewise, if you got into an argument with your mom or dad, did it end with a closed door or icy silence or passive-aggressive behavior at breakfast the next morning, or did it end with a repair, a clear understanding that you still loved each other despite the rift?

The repair is crucial because it strengthens a relationship by creating a sense of trust and safety around disagreement. But if we didn’t see or get “rupture and repair” growing up, we may not give it or know how to receive it as adults.

You’re both approaching 40 and have had a series of relationships “that all involved some level of strife.” How did you two argue in your previous relationships? Were you open to hearing the other person (it’s hard to hear somebody you’re trying to convince), or did you assign guilt from the get-go? Did you interrupt each other, assuming you knew what the other person was going to say before it was said? Did you handle your anger with contemptuous comments, or express it directly? Did you make a good faith attempt at repair? Did you come toward your partners when they attempted a repair, or did you hold a grudge if you still felt injured or misunderstood?

You and your girlfriend may be strongly compatible, but you’re not clones. You do have differences, and it’s important to recognize what they are. Maybe the ones you’ve seen so far don’t bother either one of you, but eventually some will. How then, you asked, can you know that you’ll be able to overcome those potentially significant conflicts when you haven’t had to work through the smaller ones yet?

A psychologist named John Gottman conducted a well-known experiment in which he watched couples argue. These partners were asked to talk about a disagreement while an observer analyzed their interaction. In the end, Gottman took note of what he called “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” — contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling — and found that couples who used more of these horsemen during their observed argument were far more likely to split up than those who found more respectful ways to disagree. But he also found that the skills that give a relationship a more positive prognosis can be easily taught.

Often couples come to therapy in the throes of a rupture, but many couples today are discovering that the better time to sit down together is before the marriage begins. In my premarital sessions and those of my colleagues, we help couples to talk about money (what each partner likes to spend money on, how much each likes to save), kids (if both want them, how many, and who’s going to take care of them), sex (desire, needs, and negotiation), family (in-laws and others), fidelity (is the couple monogamous and if so, what does that mean — is flirting okay? Friends with the exes?). It’s not about creating conflict, but about learning how to work through the areas in which each person has different ideas, beliefs, and preferences. There are many premarital courses and weekend retreats that do the same thing. I’ve never seen a couple go through this kind of experience and not learn something completely new about themselves and each other: You think what? You want that? I had no idea!

When this happens, couples are at first astonished, then sometimes scared (who is this person I’m about to marry?), but ultimately relieved, because in bringing to light their places of difference and talking them through, they see how beautifully separate they actually are. It’s precisely this place of awareness that forms the foundation of how their future arguments will go — and whether or not they have them (because they will) won’t be their greatest concern.

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapist@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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‘Is It a Problem That My Relationship Has No Problems?’