Editorial: For argument's sake

by The Listener / 17 January, 2013
We need to do more to ensure children grow up in warm and responsive environments.
Editorial - for argument's sake

This is the week New Year’s resolutions typically fail – including the resolution not to stress out if your goal of reducing stress has failed. Binned resolutions to, for instance, go to the gym and read more “proper books” are hardly tragedies. But one resolution – possibly reflecting recent international reports that 80% of couples admit to having at least two big arguments when they go on holiday for a fortnight, with 70% saying they fight every day – is worth attention. It’s the resolution not to argue so much with a spouse or partner.

Not to be argumentative or anything, but it’s the wrong resolution. Certainly it’s important to reduce damaging conflicts in families. So important that this week’s cover story focuses on the negative impacts on children. Even sleeping infants are affected by aggressive family arguments, concludes a study just reported in the journal Psychological Science. MRI scans performed by University of Oregon researchers on infants from families with more than usual levels of conflict showed an angry tone of voice induced in those babies a greater reaction in the parts of the brain responsible for regulating stress and emotion than in other babies.

But those masters of relationships, the psychologists who founded the Gottman Institute in Seattle, report that arguments are endemic to all relationships and, in fact, serve an important function when handled well. Professor John Gottman has researched more than 3000 couples across seven longitudinal studies to identify what makes a relationship work and now claims to be able to predict with 91% accuracy whether a couple will stay happily together. The key is observing a couple when they are discussing areas of conflict. The couples who remain physiologically calmer – the researchers look at heart rate, sweat on the palms of hands and how much people move about when they talk – have better relationships, which improve over time.

Arguments can be about anything: “Most couples do not hit topics: they just get irritable with each other,” Gottman told a UK newspaper last year. In workshops, Gottman and his psychologist wife, Julie Schwartz, often go through their own latest argument. One recurring disagreement is in their attitudes to the health of their only daughter: one comes from a family who deny illness, the other doesn’t. But they’ve been successfully married for over 25 years.

Even in good relationships, they say, miscommunication and hurt feelings are more probable than really effective communication and empathy. But conflicts handled constructively help develop understanding and can wind up making couples feeling closer. The critical thing, say the Gottmans, is not to leave each other in pain. “The thing we see most in our clinical offices is where couples have left each other in discomfort, pain and loneliness and just ignored it. The secret of staying in love, according to the Gottmans, is cherishing and nourishing gratitude: “Couples whose relationships fall apart nurture resentment for what they don’t have – rather than gratitude for what they do have.”

Sadly, New Zealand marriages now have a one-in-three failure rate. The fact that we have the third highest rate of one-parent families after Canada and the UK indicates that other partnership arrangements aren’t too stable, either. The “Vulnerable Children” report noted that half of New Zealand households in the high-risk group involve sole parents. In the US, nearly 71% of poor families now lack married parents. In Britain, it’s estimated the 2012 cost of family breakdown was £44 billion – an annual cost to each taxpayer of £1500.

It affects everyone: there’s the stress for those involved in bitter break-ups, the financial shock, the lowered work productivity and the wider economic pressures on housing and other resources. The Economist recently reported on the efforts to increase stable partnerships as a way to prevent further widening of inequality in society.

But most of all there’s the effect on children of being in adversarial and undermining environments. No one is suggesting couples stay together in toxic circumstances. But handled well, even those with conflicting “money personalities” can complement each other, reports Relationships Services. As our cover story notes, there are increasing calls to remove the stigma of partnership and parenting courses as a means to ensure children grow up in warm and responsive environments. No argument there.
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