If you ask philosopher Alain de Botton, spouses should take comfort in the fact that they piss each other off every now and then.
It could just be a sign that a marriage is running smoothly.
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, entitled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” de Botton challenges the romantic notion that successful marriages contain no conflict.
People can’t be perfect for one another, he argues. Suffering is inevitable, which means the only important choice is “which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”
As bleak as this premise may seem, de Botton argues that his philosophy is actually liberating for couples. People who embrace their significant other’s flaws — and stay mindful of their own imperfections — don’t get nearly as upset when their partner does something offensive like forget a birthday or leave dirty clothes on the floor.
“It might sound odd,” he writes, “but pessimism relieves the excessive imaginative pressure that our romantic culture places upon marriage. The failure of one particular partner to save us from our grief and melancholy is not an argument against that person and no sign that a union deserves to fail or be upgraded.”
De Botton’s pessimism has research on its side — relationship psychologist Dr. John Gottman has repeatedly determined that successful marriages necessarily include fights.
Gottman published a study in 1998 suggesting that 15-minute video tapes of couples’ conversations held enough clues to predict whether they’d get divorced with 83% accuracy. Later, Gottman published additional research that bumped the rate up to 91% after just five minutes of observation.
His main observations about relationship pitfalls have since been distilled into the so-called “Four Horsemen”: four behavioral patterns that can signal an unsustainable partnership. Those negative indicators include acts of contempt, such as eye-rolling; accusations against the other person; stonewalling techniques; and absolute declarations like “You always leave the seat up” or “You never help with the garbage.”
Learning to avoid these behaviors is crucial, Gottman has found, because the way in which couples handle disagreements may be the biggest predictor of a relationship’s durability.
“Many couples tend to equate a low level of conflict with happiness and believe the claim ‘we never fight’ is a sign of marital health,” Gottman wrote in Psychology Today in 1994. “But I believe we grow in our relationships by reconciling our differences. That’s how we become more loving people and truly experience the fruits of marriage.”
Both de Botton’s philosophy and Gottman’s research echo the same truth: Marriages inevitably involve disagreements because people are naturally flawed. The two also agree that the manner in which people attempt to resolve those differences says more about their compatibility than whether conflict arises in the first place.
“Compatibility is an achievement of love,” de Botton writes. “It must not be its precondition.”
So suffer — you’re bound to. But for the sake of your relationship, make sure you’re suffering productively.