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January 10, 2000 e-mail e-mail to a friend in need

Ah, America. January 1 rolls around without worldwide computer meltdown (just somewhere in Maine, where owners of 2000-model cars and trucks evidently received titles identifying their vehicles as "horseless carriages"). And all the followup news stories are about how we're griping that we spent all that money and nothing went wrong?!

Am I missing something? Doesn't that mean we, like, succeeded? Sure, maybe we could have allocated a few more resources to dismantling Jennifer Lopez's attachment to Puff Daddy, but still. Can't win.

My followup news story, however, is this: turns out that when it comes to bugs in our relationships, we may indeed be throwing a lot of unnecessary reprogramming in the wrong place. The latest research and I thus bring you:

Are You Two Y2K-Compatible?
Putting the "MM" in MMMMarriage.

Hey, remember when I told you you didn't have to forgive? You thought that was ultra-post-modern? Now I'm here to tell you you don't have to resolve conflict. In fact, "conflict resolution" is becoming today's "horseless carriage" of marriage. Ooold-fashioned. The latest bottom line -- according to Ted Houston, Ph.D. of UT/Austin and John Gottman, Ph.D. of UWash/Seattle, who do actual science-lab research on couples -- there's more to making things work than working things out. From what these guys have observed, preserving relationships is less about whether or not you actually solve problems and more about how you treat each other in the process of trying to. This does not mean that you must invoke gimmicks from the 1900s like "active listening," where you each repeat the other's emotional reporting so that everyone feels validated (which has been known to devolve into: "I hear that you ... sound ridiculous."). Rather, says Gottman, you should endeavor to avoid what he's fittingly called The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Basically: say why you're mad, sure. But try not to get mean and attack character; try not to let your inner pouter say "Did not!" or "LALALALA I'M NOT LISTENING!"

Bicker though you may, try and create what Gottman calls a meta- "culture of appreciation" in your partnership: perform random acts of kissing, whisper sweet nothings ... heck, tell them to the world. This is the most of the "more to making things work" thing. Houston backs him up, noting that in his own research, it's not conflict, but rather the "loss of initial levels of love and affection" that's more likely to lead to unhappiness or divorce: "The dominant culture has been to work with couples to resolve conflict, but it should focus on preserving the positive feelings" (Jan/Feb 2000 Psychology Today).

So I'm tickled to say that the only mention of explosives at this less-portentous-than-the-hype time is a metaphorical one: always remember Breakup Girl's bottom line for acceptable -- to say nothing of joyful -- relationships: Does s/he think you're the bomb? Do you think the same of him/her? Do you fight/act/adore accordingly? Start there for a 2000-model marriage.

Further reading: January/February 2000 Psychology Today, January/February 2000 Men's Health, and this letter.



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