Heartbeat: When Hearts and Heads Collide

By Dr. Pepper Schwartz May 23, 2023


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

Perhaps everyone has heard the saying that goes something like “to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results is the definition of crazy.” We all smile knowingly, perhaps even smugly. Of course, that’s true. But we shouldn’t be so smug because if that’s the definition of crazy, we are all more than a little bit loony.

The fact is that most relationship conflict has a pattern, and it goes something like this: Person A says, “I was furious when you did that.” Person B says, “I did not do that;” or “don’t make such a big deal of it;” or “I’m sorry. It just happened.” Regardless of the answer, Person A is not mollified. They want some kind of score, even retribution, and “sorry” is not enough. They rail on about what happened, Person B gets angry, and mutual attacks result. Usually, someone escalates too much, the other person storms out, or they go to bed steaming.

Or they just stop. But nothing gets fixed. Sound familiar to many of you? Absolutely.

It’s very familiar to me since I give advice to couples who meet under extremely stressful circumstances and are literally married at first sight. (For those of you who don’t know about the TV show Married At First Sight, Pastor Cal Roberson, other colleagues, and I pick people who apply to have us find them a wife or husband — and they meet that spouse at the altar!) As you might expect, during the early days and months of the marriage, they have quite a few arguments — often disappointingly repetitive and destructive to their deepest longing, which is to be happily married.

I know there are many great books and terrific therapists who very effectively work on helping couples resolve conflict, but just in case what I said sounds distressingly familiar, a few key behaviors can stop this cycle of relationship deterioration and personal angst. If you follow them, I am going to have saved you a lot of counseling and money.

The rules:

  1. Bring up the issue near when it happens. Don’t nurse your anger privately and build a private case and shut it before the other side can present.
  2. But don’t do it when you are red hot or even pink hot. It would be like trying to present a cogent presentation after four drinks. You are already too adrenalized to be sensible and therefore unable to follow the rest of these suggestions. If you have to go to bed angry, so be it. But don’t turn your backs to one another without scheduling a time the next day to talk.
  3. When you talk, watch your tone. Be honest. Are you sounding either contemptuous or righteous? You have to lay out your point of view and your feelings, but not in a way that drives your partner against the wall, fighting for dignity with every nasty tool they can think of.
  4. Whether you think you are the injured party or you are the accused, don’t get defensive. Drs. John and Julie Gottman, storied Seattle therapists, have been eloquent on this point. It doesn’t matter, for example, if your partner is someone who often does the same thing you are accused of doing. Stay in the present. If you defend yourself by attacking your partner, you will get nowhere fast on what should be your goal: a positive resolution to the issue at hand.
  5. Keep listening with respect. Just because this is a familiar argument, it can still have new details, feelings or perceptions. Don’t turn off, roll your eyes, or sigh with resignation. Remember your goal.
  6. Create a way to “let it go.” You need to forgive all that has passed between you. You both need to apologize for words or acts that were ill-chosen. Remember, the goal is to heal and change, not to inflict damage on each other. You might need to forgive some serious trespasses. Nursing a grudge is like picking a scab. It feels good in some twisted way but at best it leaves a scar. And, at worst, it can create systemic infection.
  7. Agree on what has been accomplished. You need to know you have made progress. “OK, I will no long drink too much at parties, and I will stop when you ask me to. If I don’t, I promise to go to a program of your choice.” Or, on a lesser situation, “OK, I promise not to interrupt you at dinner parties, and you can sit near me so you can kick me under the table when I steal the conversation again.”
  8. Finally, and just as important as anything I have said up to this point, agree to get additional help from a professional if you are unable to follow these rules. A small plug here: I have a new book with Dr. Jessica Griffin (a trauma specialist) called Relationship Rx, and it is all about solving various relationship conflicts — some small, some relationship threatening. However, sometimes reading a book won’t be enough.  Sometimes it is deeper damage in our own or our partner’s personal history that stops us from being able to work together on an issue. Whatever the reason, this last recognition is critical. The Gottmans’ research shows that one of the prime reasons couples break up is because they feel they are never able to solve problems. Don’t let this be you.

My girlfriend wants to move in with me, but I am worried about the financial repercussions. I have quite a few resources but her ability to do her half of our mutual costs is unstable. She is a talented musician but that means sometimes she has money and sometimes she doesn’t. I don’t want to foot all the bills, especially because now I have pretty heavy child support. How should I handle this?

I know it’s difficult to talk about money, but that makes it especially important to gather your courage and do the hard work of tallying up real facts and figures. And do it before you are sharing closets with anyone. Because it’s a lot harder to take things out of drawers than put things into them.

The fact is that couples generally know more about each other’s past sex life than they know about their present bank account. And while knowing about a lover’s sexual history can be important, it may not be as important as knowing whether your partner has major credit card debt or is unable to pay for basic expenses.

That said, money shouldn’t trump love all the time. It is not uncommon for people of wildly different financial backgrounds or resources to fall in love and figure out a joint financial future that suits them both. Making it work might need compromise of some sort. For example, you might have to decide if the higher earner has to crank down monthly costs so that the person earning less can afford this lifestyle. Or, looking at your respective pay checks could mean that one person is going to pay significantly more because sharing 50-50 is going to be impossible for the lower earning person to do.

There are a number of possible compromises or collaborations that could be made to make moving in with your girlfriend a good move. But that would mean having honest talks about what is fair or possible, and what managing finances would look like on a day-today basis. You might find that when you total up new expenses, living together might not be as expensive as you think since she would be moving in with you and you are already paying rent. You might not be better off if she moves in, but you won’t be worse off!

But, in your case, it sounds that while you admire your girlfriend, her likely inability to participate equally or regularly in joint expenses already upsets you. It’s making you hesitate to move in together. Given your fears, living together is probably not the right move. Clashes over money are not trivial. You don’t seem like Mr. Traditional, who wants to be the provider and take care of his honey’s financial needs. You sound like you want something closer to a shared economic contribution, which is unlikely given your girlfriend’s career, hence the advice to step on the brakes.

If fears about money are stronger than your excitement about having intimate time together, then perhaps a lack of love is the reason you don’t want her.

Does that make you sad? I’m just being rational. And while it might seem paradoxical, it’s hard to be rational when money is involved. Cold hard cash is neither cold nor hard. It’s a passionate subject and it includes feelings about security, ambition, equity, and equality. Reactions to money are highly personalized and what is a fair or advantageous economic deal is highly subjective.

So, if you find the idea of being the major money source bone chilling, then admit it to yourself and save both you and your girlfriend some future heartache. And here’s another thought to consider: If your fears about money are stronger than your excitement about having more intimate time together, then perhaps a lack of love is the real reason you don’t want her, as they say in the wedding ceremony, “for richer or for poorer.”


About the Heartbeat: Ask Dr. Pepper Schwartz Column

Welcome to my world!

I spend a lot of time thinking about intimate relationships.

If you’ve read any of my previous work as a professor at the University of Washington, or watched me on television, you know that I care about what keeps people together, what drives them apart and what gives them pleasure. I am curious about trends, but also unique behaviors. I look at people above the clavicle and below the waist. It’s all interesting and important to me.

I know it is to you, too. I want to hear what you’re thinking. Please ask me questions or give your point of view at Pepper@seattlemag.com and I will respond, if appropriate, online and perhaps in print.

Let’s have some meaningful conversations – and some fun while we’re at it!

So, what’s on my mind today?


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