It’s February, which means romance is in the air. But relationships are not always roses and candlelight dinners; they take work, and some days they are difficult. The majority of After Ellen readers agree that arguing from time to time is normal and healthy.
Relationship researchers have studied what couples can do in order to survive these fights and come out stronger on the other side. So much relationship advice out there is centered around heterosexual couples, e.g. “men are from Mars,” but as women who love other women, we need advice that is focused on us and the unique aspects of being in a same-sex relationship. Here are four well-researched relationship tips that respect the unique characteristics of being in a relationship with another woman.
Learn how we fight: The 12-year study
Relationship experts Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Robert Levenson spent 12 years following same-sex couples, studying how we handle conflict within our relationships. Although they found that same-sex couples have the same levels of relationship satisfaction of heterosexual couples, they discovered that we differ in how we approach conflicts and how we fight with our partners. One thing the researchers found is that lesbian couples show more emotions during our conflicts.
Although this means we express more negative emotions such as anger, it also means that we are more likely to express positive emotions, such as affection and a sense of humor. Compared to heterosexual couples, lesbian couples are more receptive to our partners bringing up a disagreement, and we are less likely to get our feelings hurt by negative comments. Dr. Gottman notes that “straight couples may have a lot to learn from gay and lesbian relationships.”
Learn how to fight well: Avoid “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”
Researchers at The Gottman Institute have spent almost 3 decades studying how couples argue, assessing what behaviors are toxic and what behaviors help fights go more smoothly. This research has been done with both homosexual and heterosexual couples, and the results are the same for everyone.
There are four toxic behaviors people engage in during conflicts, which have been named “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” due to how they can predict breakups. It’s important to learn what these behaviors are in order to look out for them and engage in their “antidotes,” behaviors that help us fight more smoothly and respectfully. The four behaviors to avoid and how we can defend against them are as follows:
1. Criticism is countered by “I” statements
There is a difference between complaining about something your partner does and criticizing them as a person. Don’t attack who your partner is. When you bring up a complaint, try using “I” statements instead of “you” statements. “You” statements indicate blame, but “I” statements help us address how we feel and what we need from our partner. When you want to address an issue, try to avoid saying “You always ___.” Instead, try saying “I feel ___ when you ___, and I need ____.”
2. Contempt is countered by respect and gratitude
Contempt is being mean to your partner, belittling or disrespecting her. Engaging in behaviors that express contempt make our partners feel disliked and worthless. Try to avoid behaviors like rolling your eyes or using sarcasm during an argument. One way to protect against contempt is to cultivate a sense of respect and appreciation within your relationship. Say thank you when your partner does something nice for you, even if it is something small like taking out the trash. Regularly expressing gratitude and respect help us avoid the build-up of resentment.
Researchers have discovered that it takes five positive things to outweigh one negative thing in a relationship, so practice building up a history of positive interactions with each other that can help you stay feeling positive about one another, even during a tough time.
3. Defensiveness is countered by taking responsibility
When we are defensive, we not only try to avoid responsibility for our actions, but we sometimes try to turn things around on our partners and blame them instead. For example, if your girlfriend or wife is upset that you forgot to empty the dishwasher, it is defensive if you try to blame her by saying, “But you didn’t remind me.” Instead, accept responsibility when you mess up, and try to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
4. Stonewalling is countered by relaxation
“Stonewalling” is when you shut down during an argument, completely refusing to respond to your partner. Often, someone stonewalling shuts their partner out by walking away from them or pretending to be too busy to hear them. This happens because we get overwhelmed and want to disengage from a fight.
If you find yourself wanting to stonewall, you might notice your body feels stressed-out, for example, you might have an increased heart rate. Instead of shutting down and silently ignoring our partners, we need to explicitly state our need for a time-out in order to help us calm down. If you find yourself overwhelmed by an argument, tell her; don’t just go quiet. Tell your wife or your girlfriend that you need to take a break from the argument in order to calm down. During the break, spend at least 20 minutes engaging in a soothing activity, such as listening to music. Spend that break working on developing a sense of calm; don’t focus on the argument or your anger. Once you feel that your body is feeling more relaxed, you will be able to return to the discussion with a more level head.
Learn how to listen well: Practice “Imago dialogue”
Sometimes it’s hard to listen well. Whether it’s an argument or your partner is sharing something important to her, we can sometimes get carried away and want to jump in with our own thoughts. However, it is important that we really listen to our girlfriends and wives.
Feeling truly listened to helps cultivate a sense of respect and intimacy between the two of you. If you find yourself struggling to listen to or understand your partner, one thing you can try is Imago dialogue. Imago dialogue breaks having a conversation into 3-parts: mirroring, validating, and empathizing. If you are finding that you aren’t on the same page as your partner, try this 3-stage method of having a conversation:
Commit to listening to what she says without interrupting or thinking about how you would like to respond. Instead, take in what she is saying, and then mirror it back to her, asking if you have understood correctly. When she is finished expressing her feelings, try saying “What I heard you say was ____. Is that correct?” If she says yes, you can move on to the next step, which is validation. If she says no, ask her to try saying it another way and mirror it back to her until she agrees that you have understood what she means.
Validate what she has just told you, letting her know that her feelings make sense based on what you know about her personality or based off of things she has told you before. Try saying “It makes sense that you feel that way because _____.” Make your validation specific to her. For example, instead of saying “It makes sense that you feel that way because no one wants to be cut off when they’re talking”, try saying “It makes sense that you are upset because you have told me before how you feel that people don’t listen to you.”
Finally, have empathy for her and how she is feeling. Try guessing how she feels based off of what she has just told you. For example, try saying “I imagine that you’re feeling ____. Is that correct?”
Try to practice Imago dialogue regularly. It helps deepen your sense of communication and understanding during the good times, and if you practice it regularly, it will become more natural to use this communication style during an argument. Using Imago dialogue during an argument can help keep things calm and keep them from escalating.
Learn how she wants to be loved: Learn her “love language”
Maybe you find yourself in a situation where you feel like you regularly express love and affection for your partner, but she doesn’t feel that you are as expressive or loving as you believe that you are. This might be due to a difference in which “love language” you two prefer.
The idea behind love languages is that there are 5 ways that people feel loved: words of affirmation, physical touch, gifts, acts of service, and quality time. If your preferred way of expressing love is giving gifts, but your girlfriend or wife’s preferred way of feeling loved is receiving acts of service, you could be constantly giving her gifts yet she could feel neglected because what she really wants is for you to cook her dinner. You can take this quiz together in order to learn what each others’ love language is. Then, you can cultivate deeper intimacy by loving her in the way that she feels most loved.
Researchers at Agnes Scott College have studied the unique way that women in same-sex couples value love languages, assessing how those love languages relate to our satisfaction in our relationships and to our sexual satisfaction. They found that in lesbian couples, greater amounts of physical touch was associated with greater relationship satisfaction.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
One of the biggest predictors of relationship satisfaction and intimacy is how you communicate. If you find yourself struggling to understand one another or having a hard time feeling calm during an argument, the above tips should help you communicate better, cultivating deeper intimacy.