(OPRAH.com) -- I can sum up in three "acts" the breakdowns and breakups of most relationships since the beginning of time:
Act 1: You hurt me.
Act 2: Because you hurt me, I now hurt you.
Act 3: Because you hurt me, I now hurt you and so you hurt me again and so I hurt you -- and downward spiraling we shall go.
John Gottman, the famed founder of The Love Lab (a family research laboratory where where couples are studied), says he can consistently predict how long a relationship will last, not based on how well a couple gets along, but by how well a couple doesn't get along.
A relationship is only as strong as how well the two can deal with their weakest moments and how well they handle conflict.
Gottman's 3 conflict strategies:
• Avoidance/stonewalling (the worst)
• Fighting (better than avoidance, but still not healthful or helpful)
• Validation (the winning method -- which means really trying to see things from the other person's point of view, and sharing all views with kindness, and the goal of finding a win-win compromise!)
Gottman believes avoidance/stonewalling is the numero uno contributor to the end of love because it says to your partner: "Yo! I've checked out of this discussion because I don't find you important enough to continue to talk to anymore."
Ouch. Basically, stonewalling conveys a lack of respect. Interestingly, studies show that most men are physiologically unaffected by their wives' stonewalling.
However, stonewalling has quite the opposite effect on women. Wives' heart rates increase dramatically when their husbands stonewall. To add to this, about 85 percent of stonewallers are men! Admittedly, handling the inevitable stresses of a relationship is not an easy task.
As my favorite philosopher buddy Aristotle says: "Anybody can become angry -- that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way -- that is not within everybody's power and is not easy."
Translation? When problems arise, it takes what Aristotle calls "the virtue of discipline" to resist lapsing into avoidance/stonewalling or outright fighting. And it takes "the virtue of discipline" to self-examine with "conscious insight" to assess your self-responsibility. Finally, it takes "the virtue of discipline" to do the right thing and to be a good person when the going gets rough.
Translation to this translation? For the most part, human beings aren't bad. Human beings are simply weak. Human beings just don't want to put in the "virtue of discipline" to be good and behave with high integrity.
Believe me, I know how hard it is to be good during bad times. Unfortunately, being a good person isn't just something that happens naturally -- like growing taller or hairier.
However, high-integrity values like being good, considerate, empathetic and self-responsible are worth the "virtue of discipline," because every low-integrity, knee-jerk-be-a-jerk action sways you -- then swerves you -- farther away from your most important aim in life, becoming your highest potential, which is what brings the deepest happiness.
It's your choice
As Aristotle said, "Virtue is a character concerned with choice." And so it's always your choice:
1. You can be cold, hurtful and stonewall in the immediate gratification moment -- and cash in on the low-level pleasure this brings.
2. Or, you can tap into the "virtue of discipline" and speak up warmly because you recognize soul-nurturing love is everyone's main source for true happiness -- not the satisfaction of being right in the moment!
To sum it up: If you want to live happily ever after in love, it is absolutely essential you put in the "virtue of discipline."
Here are the top two essential traits for true love from my book "Prince Harming Syndrome":
• You and your partner must want to grow.
• You and your partner must understand that a relationship is not simply a den of pleasure. It is also a laboratory for growth a place where you learn to harness the "virtue of discipline" to become highest potential.
5 ways to not be a jerk during your next fight
If you've been fighting with your sweetie lately, here are some "high-integrity" methods for conflict resolution:
1. Pick the right time and the right place.
Do you have at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time? Can you talk openly, not self-consciously? In general, the best place to talk is alone in your home, where you can sit facing each other, with good, strong eye contact.
2. Avoid harsh start-ups.
Gottman says he can predict 96 percent of the time how a conversation will end based on its first three minutes.
Do not start out blaming or calling your partner bad names. Your partner will spend more time defending himself than attending to your needs and feelings.
Try beginning with a compliment about what you appreciate about your partner.
Also, include a reminder about how you really want to work on your relationship, so it succeeds and you both can grow together. Begin by calmly explaining how the conflict affects you -- your feelings, values, dreams and goals. Recognize that eventually most fights do not stay about the fight's topic, but rather the "way" people choose to fight.
3. Instead of trying to win arguments, try to have a winning relationship!
How? Try talking in "I" sentences instead of "you" sentences -- speak more about how you feel. (And "I feel you are a jerk!" is not an example of an "I" statement!)
Your goal is to get your partner to empathize, so forget about details and facts.
Keep staying with your feelings, values, dreams and goals. From this place of empathy, your partner will better hear you and, therefore, want to find a way to take care of your needs and feelings.
If the conversation escalates, be sure to tell your partner that you recognize your truth is not necessarily the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Be ready to be convinced out of your anger and misery. As Stephen Covey brilliantly stated in his fabulous book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," "Seek first to understand -- then to be understood!"
4. Put in the "virtue of discipline" to calm yourself before you begin talking.
Although studies show that yelling is better than stonewalling, yelling has its share of problems. When people yell, they get themselves even angrier. Interesting factoid: If you and/or your partner's heartbeat gets higher than 100 beats per minute during an argument, you will not be able to fully understand or process what the other person is saying.
When you're angry, your brain's processing becomes blocked, and it's literally more difficult to solve problems and express yourself clearly. Plus -- duh -- you're more likely to foolishly inflame the situation with insults and petty meanness. As Marcus Aurelius said, "How much more grievous are the consequences of anger, than the causes of it?"
5. Close a difficult conversation by sharing memories of good times and/or your partner's good qualities.
Jump-start loving memories, and defuse bad ones. If it's been a while since you've felt that lusty feeling, you can jump-start this phase anew by going back to those first few romantic courtship places. Chances are you'll experience déjà romance all over again.
By Karen Salmansohn from Oprah.com © 2009
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