In every interaction, every couple falls into one of three boxes: Nasty, Neutral, or Nice.
While many of us, including couples therapist, believe that a couple’s ability to be nice during conflict conversations determines the happiness of the relationship, Dr. Gottman’s research on thousands of couples highlights that happy couples often have far more neutral conversations that are emotionally dull.1
The Nice Box
Avery: I’m sorry I overreacted about you not cooking dinner earlier. I’ve been really stressed with this new project at work and I should not have taken that out on you.
Blake: Yeah… that wasn’t fun and I know work is chaotic for you right now. I also know you get overwhelmed when things feel unorganized and the lack of organization on this work project has been hard on you.2
Avery: I know. It’s so frustrating. I’m trying everything and it’s such a mess.
Blake: I get that. How about we treat ourselves tonight to some take out?
Avery: Our favorite place?
Avery walks over and gives Blake a big hug and kiss.
Sounds like a dream conflict conversation doesn’t it?
This elusive nice box is built on the foundation of mutual respect, affection, and cherishing one another. I have yet to meet a couple who consistently stays in this box.
When nice couples argue, they don’t always say the “right” thing in the best way possible, but despite their imperfect conversation, they work through the issue together.
The Nice Repair
In a trusting and emotionally connected relationship, a repair de-escalates the conflict to prevent flooding3 and enables partners to have a mature conversation about the problem, thereby keeping the conflict on track and in the safety zone of mutual respect. As a result, the tension drops just enough to continue working through the problem. Check it out:
Blake: Avery! What on earth did you buy from Costco that cost $400?
Avery: A new Vitamix blender for our kitchen. It was on sale.
Blake: Seriously! We don’t need a NEW blender…
Avery: I wanted to surprise you with trying to make the soup you loved in France.
Blake: Oh. Well…We still need to talk about this purchase. I’m not happy about it.
A relationship’s ability to step into the nice box during a heated conflict is a sign of a strong emotional connection and high levels of trust. A study on newlyweds discovered that a partner’s ability to be nice, even momentarily, during conflict was a predictor not only for whether a couple would be together after six years, but also for whether they would be happy together.4
“Repairs are the life jackets of all romantic partnerships. Their effectiveness determines whether a relationship will live or die.” -Dr. John Gottman, What Makes Love Last?
Well-timed repairs are a result of partners knowing each other’s inner worlds and how to read each other well. That means being attuned to our partner’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
So in the heat of a conflict, when you make a certain look, offer a loving smile, crack a joke that you and your partner both laugh at, ask an open-ended question, or touch your partner, it reduces your partner’s stress and calms both of you down to continue the conversation.
In Dr. Gottman’s observations in his Love Lab, he noticed that couples who were happy were able to repair the situation when their partner was just on the verge of becoming emotionally flooded. They were attuned to one another when it mattered most.
The prerequisite of a couple’s ability to enter the nice box is a strong friendship built on the foundation of trust and commitment. Read: Repairs During Conflict are a Superpower of Emotionally Connected Couples
The Neutral Box
We got hooked up to a bunch of devices that measured a variety of physiological data, were asked questions about the quality of our relationship, and then were asked to have a conflict conversation around a problem we struggle with.
We then coded our conversation on a scale from one to ten on how we felt in the moment of the conflict conversation, with one being extremely negative and ten being extremely positive.
Watching and coding our conflict conversation was pretty shocking. I had thought we had a great relationship, but our conflict conversation was emotionally flat.
We rarely used repairs and the physiological data showed that we remained mostly unfazed during our conversation. While there were moments of shared humor and moments of disagreement, there was very little increase in our heart rate and, more often than not, our body language and words were not positive or negative, but instead were neutral.5
Honestly… our conversation was emotionally boring. 6
For a moment, I started thinking, “Oh my God. Our relationship is DOOMED! After all my hard work, this is what I get?”
Luckily, I reread Dr. Gottman’s book What Makes love Last? and remembered the three boxes: Nasty, Neutral, and Nice.
In one of Dr. Gottman’s studies with couples in their mid-forties and sixties, he discovered that happy couples spent 65% of their time in the neutral box. While unhappy couples, on average, spent 47% of their time in the neutral box.
12 years later, the happy couples spent about 70% in the neutral box. Ironically, a strong connection and high levels of trust leads to both partners needing less soothing and repair-making from each other over time. In What Makes Love Last? Dr. Gottman says, “Couples who spent the most time being unemotional [in conflict] remain married.”
This doesn’t mean that couples are bored during the conversation or apathetic towards one another. Rather, they are engaged, attuned to their partner, and responsive in such a way that both partners remain emotionally calm while working through a disagreement.7
Essentially these romantic partners are emotionally intelligent in such a way that they are able to get their emotions to work for them, rather than being overwhelmed by them during a conflict conversation. 8
Furthermore, in my partner’s and my conflict conversation, we were not overly affectionate. We didn’t say, “I really love you sweetheart.” We didn’t gaze into each other’s eyes or go make passionate love after we left the lab.
Rather, we came up with some temporary solutions to address me working long hours and my partner wanting more time for connection. 9
Here’s what the end of our conversation sounded like:
“Are you good with this?”
“I am, you?”
And that was it. No fireworks. No drama. Just moving on with the rest of our day with some slight adjustments to how we engage each other during the work week.
“The relief of the neutral box is the ultimate expression of relationship trust.” – Dr. Gottman, What Makes Love Last?
Getting to a place of being neutral during this conversation took a LOT of prior work from my partner and me. In fact, we designate a specific time each week to openly discuss and work on our relationship problems.
Our willingness to be proactive has benefited our relationship immensely and as a result we are rewarded with rather unexciting conflict conversations. While this doesn’t happen for every conversation, which you’ll soon see, it is something we are working towards.
According to Dr. Gottman, the neutral box is where happy relationships end up.10
The capacity for couples to stay in the nice or neutral box offers the greatest benefit for the relationship. For unhappy couples, they get stuck in the nasty box and struggle to escape.
The Nasty Box
It may be shocking to you, but happy couples can be nasty with each other on occasion. Both my partner and I have, at times, been critical, defensive, and contemptuous of one another. We are not proud of it, but it has happened on rare occasions.
The difference between happy and unhappy couples is that happy couples quickly exit the nasty box into the neutral or nice box. For unhappy couples, their lack of trust, emotional connection, and we-ness keeps them in the nasty box, which leads to destructive conflict behaviors that can end with stonewalling and saying things like “SHUT UP!” The more the interactions end this way, the worse conflict becomes.
When stuck in the nasty box, repairs fail and go unnoticed. Partners may become loud and verbally attack each other. They may stew in their negative thoughts and feelings. They hate the negativity and at the same time feel helpless to get out of it. As things get worse, the couple heads down a predictable cascade that leads to end of the relationship.
4 Reasons Couples Get Stuck in the Nasty Box
The root reason couples get stuck in the nasty box is how they interact with each other. Often problems are exacerbated due to a deficit in attunement. According to Dr. Gottman, attunement is the desire and capacity to understand and respect your partner’s inner world. The lack of attunement can be a byproduct of mismatches in emotional expression and conflict styles.
Mismatches in Emotional Expression and Conflict Styles
Attachment research has normalized healthy dependency in romantic relationships and demonstrated that relationships thrive on emotional connection. Dr. Gottman’s research findings discovered that there is no optimal amount of emotional expression or conflict engagement/avoidance.
Gottman argues that there are three types of stable marriages, not just one. These include passionate, validating, and conflict-avoidant marriages. The key to stability in all of these relationship types is the ratio—specifically a 5:1 ratio—of positive to negative interactions during conflict. When that ratio falls below 0.8:1, all of these relationships become nasty. 11
One of the keys to relationship stability is how well partners are matched on their desired amount of:
- Conflict engagement or avoidance
- Emotional expression and exploration
- Intimacy and passion
- Interdependence or independence
Problems occur when there are mismatches in any of these areas between partners. Such mismatches often lead to perpetual problems in the relationship.
For example, in one of the most toxic relationship types of all, one partner is an avoidant and the other is anxious. They are complete opposites in their desired amount of emotional expression, independence, and intimacy.
While every couple has mismatches to some degree, couples who are farther apart on the various spectrums struggle more. Often this struggle leads to insecurity in the relationship. These mismatches are exacerbated when partners struggle to attune to each other and understand each other’s inner worlds, including emotions.
Your Emotional Heritage
When a romantic partner struggles with emotional connection and attunement, the problem can be more than an inability to express emotion openly. Rather their unwillingness reflects underlying beliefs, feelings, and prior experiences of emotional expression.
Every one of us grew up in a family with its own philosophy of emotion. Dr. Gottman’s research highlights that families tend to fall into one of four emotional philosophies: 12
- Coaching: Accept expression of all feelings and support one another in coping with difficult feelings (sadness, anger, fear) and resolving problems.
- Dismissing: Hide feelings, especially difficult ones. By not expressing feelings, the family does not offer guidance on how to cope with them.
- Laissez-faire: Accept expression of all feelings, but do not support each other in coping with difficult feelings. The attitude is “this too will pass.”
- Disapproving: Difficult feelings are hidden and if they are expressed, the response is hostile or critical, which blocks expressing emotions.
Which emotional heritage do you have? How does this impact your relationship with emotions and conflict?
Lack of Conflict Skills
Every single one of us has a conflict style that reflects how we learned to manage differences and the discomfort of conflict. Some romantic partners avoid all conflict. Other partners argue their perspective and try to win. And some couples have a dialogue about feelings, needs, and ways to find a win-win solution.
Couples who manage conflict well have prior experiences of healthy conflict and/or have intentionally taught themselves how to use conflict as an opportunity to build a more connected and meaningful relationship. Here are some vital conflict skills and mindsets based on research from Dr. Gottman’s Love Lab:
- Help Your Partner Understand Your Side of the Conflict in 3 Steps
- Transforming Criticism into Wishes: A Recipe for Successful Conflict
- How to Listen Without Getting Defensive in Relationship Conflict
- Stop Trying to Fix Your Partner’s Feelings, Connect with Them Instead
- Understanding Each Other: Part One of the State of the Union Meeting
- Reaching a Compromise: Part Two of the State of the Union Meeting
- Win Relationship Conflict by Letting Your Partner Win Too
- There are Two Views to Every Conflict and Both are Valid
- Understanding Must Precede Advice in Relationship Conflict
Lack of Commitment and Trust
As I have proposed in my articles “Conflict Doesn’t Ruin a Relationship, a Lack of Connection Does” and “A Happy Relationship is IMPOSSIBLE Without Trust and Commitment,” a lack of emotional connection and security in a relationship leads to nastier conflict and more insecurity.
Couples who stay in the nasty box are emotionally disconnected and behave in ways that maintain insecurity in their relationship. Couples who stay in the neutral or nice box have high levels of trust, consistently connect emotionally, and invest more into their relationship.
Here are some helpful exercises and articles to build a strong emotional connection:
- An Intimate Conversation is Like Traveling the World
- 7 Daily Rituals Intentional Couples Use to Cultivate Lasting Love
- The Love Tank Theory: How to Make Love Actually Last
- The One Daily Talk That Will Change Your Relationship
- The Magic 6 Hours That Makes Love Last (Based on Research)
Keeping your relationship in neutral and nice boxes is a byproduct of doing the hard work of learning how to manage your differences and work through conflict, while intentionally making an effort for play, connection, and lovemaking.
- This insight comes from Dr. Gottman’s research in his famous Love Lab where he observed hundreds of couples fighting about problems in their relationships. To learn more, check out his book: What Makes Love Last? ↩
- In The Marriage Clinic by Dr. John Gottman, he highlights that “Nondistressed couples engage in “relationship-enhancing” attributions that minimize the impact of negative behaviors of the partner and maximize the positive ones; distressed couples engage in “distress-maintaining” attributions that maximize the impact of the partner’s negativity and minimize the impact of his or her positivity.” p. 71 ↩
- Flooding leads to nastier conflict. Read: War or Love: Flaws of the Human Brain in Relationship Conflict ↩
- Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., & Carrere, S. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal Of Marriage & Family, 60(1), 5-22. doi:10.2307/353438 ↩
- Ironically, the overall neutrality of our conversation was rated as more positive over time by the coders. Interestingly the conflict conversation was more positive for me, than it was for my partner as evidenced by the coders and the ratings my partner and I choose. This is because she used to be conflict avoidant and any conflict for her makes her think that our relationship may end. Getting to this level of neutral has taken work from both of us. ↩
- If I posted the video, I bet 95% of you would stop watching after the first minute. ↩
- When partners are not attuned to one another, conflict gets worse. ↩
- Credit for this quote goes to EQ Applied “Put Simply: emotional intelligence is the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.” When romantic partners do this, They are aware of their feelings, manage their emotions to benefit their relationship, are aware of their partner’s inner world, and manage their relationship to constructively work through problems together. These are the four pillars of emotional intelligence. ↩
- This is a perpetual problem in our relationship. Meaning this problem will likely be the same 20 years from now. Read: 5 Ways Reoccuring Relationship Conflict Can Enhance Your Marriage ↩
- The Boring Box is a Worthy Goal. Many couples begin therapy with the goal of entering the nice box. Ironically most couples therapists’ approaches align with this goal, with therapists examining conflict nastiness in hopes of moving couples to the nice box as often as possible. Not many couple’s therapist would count a couple’s conversation with tamed emotions as a win. A research study by Levenson and Ebling asked relationship experts to predict the outcome of ten couples’ interactions and whether they would divorce or stay together. The predictions were no more accurate than a coin flip. Scary, huh? That’s because these “experts” focused only on the nice or nasty boxes and negated how powerful the calm and emotionally controlled parts of the conflict benefited the relationship. They viewed the neutral box as unimportant. ↩
- This insight comes from The Clinical Handbook of Couples Therapy p. 144 ↩
- This comes from The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships ↩