Fight Right

How Successful Couples Turn Conflict Into Connection



About the Book


Conflict is the top reason couples seek help—but it's also an opportunity for greater intimacy, deeper connection, and lasting love according to this essential guide from the world’s leading relationship scientists and authors of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and Eight Dates.

“An indispensable resource that couples will use over and over again.”—Lori Gottlieb, New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

How we fight predicts the future of our relationships. Most of us blunder into conflict without knowing what we are really fighting about and then quickly become overwhelmed by physiological responses we can’t control and emotions we don’t anticipate. The truth is the happiest and most successful couples fight—all the time. Conflict is human, and necessary.

Through decades of research, Drs. John and Julie Gottman, founders of the world-famous Love Lab, have identified the five common mistakes we make when we are at odds. In Fight Right, we learn the five secrets that help us to get back on track and harness conflict to build stronger, healthier relationships. With kindness, clarity, and a deep understanding of the struggles couples are going through, the Gottmans show us that we each have a unique conflict culture, borne of how we were raised and how we experienced past relationships, and they take us through all the possible combinations, from Avoiders, to Validators, to Volatiles, and how they can best work together. 

Fight Right is an essential resource that will help couples escape the win-or-lose mentality in favor of a collaborative approach: calming down, staying connected, and really understanding, so that our fights can bring us closer.
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Praise for Fight Right

“Conflict is inevitable in any relationship—the trick is knowing how to handle it. Difficulty navigating conflict is one of the most common reasons that couples seek help from books and professionals. They're looking for guidance, but there is surprisingly little practical, accessible information out there. So who better than John and Julie Gottman to give couples the important tools they need? This book will be an indispensable resource that couples will use over and over again.”—Lori Gottlieb, New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone and co-host of the Dear Therapists podcast

“Couples need skills to fight better, and Fight Right is the book that all couples will want to read. Dr. John and Julie Gottman have crafted a masterful guide about the importance of fighting and the skills needed to grow from having necessary disputes. The Gottmans have spent years studying and teaching couples, and in Fight Right, they are teaching couples how to do it right.”—Nedra Glover Tawwab, New York Times bestselling author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace
“In a relationship, your goal is to help your partner find their purpose. John and Julie Gottman, with their decades of experience working intimately with couples, know that the road to finding your purpose and fulfilling your dreams is often through conflict. If we don’t learn how to do conflict well, we’re going to be stuck, disconnected, and unfulfilled. Couples today really need clear, compassionate, and science-based guidance in this arena, and as the world’s leading love experts, the Gottmans are the trusted voice to guide them.”—Jay Shetty, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Think Like a Monk
“So many couples out there are stuck in gridlock, and although they want to move forward, they don't know how. For the first time, John and Julie Gottman bring their decades of research to the hot topic of what we’re fighting about, and how we can fight better. Crucially, this book begins by helping people understand their conflict style and where it comes from and addresses how we deal with our emotions and how that shapes our conflicts. I don’t know of another resource out there like this one, with so much landmark science, vivid storytelling, and clear tools in every chapter. This book is a gift to its readers.”—Susan David, PhD, bestselling author of Emotional Agility

“A profound new take on conflict from the world’s leading relationship experts, Fight Right is poised to be the kind of classic that 7 Principles has become. This book is for all couples, from those who are in crisis to those who may think they have a perfect relationship. We can all benefit from this simple and love-changing understanding of how we fight and how we can fight for connection and not separation. How couples fight affects their family, our community, and the world, and learning how to bridge our differences is one of the essential skills we need now more than ever. A brilliant paradigm shift on conflict, with clear guidance for how to repair ruptures right.”—Daniel Siegel, MD, author of New York Times bestsellers Aware, The Whole Brain Child, and No Drama Discipline
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Fight Right

Why We Fight

“What’s going on?” he says, as she says at the same time, “So what do you want to talk about?”

They both laugh.

The couple is sitting close together, propped up against crisp white pillows on their comfy bed, facing the camera. They’re angled toward each other; so far, they both seem warm and relaxed—maybe a little nervous about being filmed. We’ve asked them to turn on the camera of their laptop, begin recording, and then simply talk about how their day is going. That’s all.

Meanwhile, our AI system is watching them. This system was built to assist our Gottman-trained therapists and couples wanting to assess their relationship at home—to gather illuminating data about how partners respond to each other in casual interactions and in conflict. The AI can read their heart rate from the video feed, without any other devices. Using machine learning, it does emotion coding, pinpointing each partner second by second on a wide range of possible emotional categories. And it rates each person’s trust level in their partner on a scale of 0 to 100 percent.

The AI—designed by our brilliant colleagues, Rafael Lisitsa and Dr. Vladimir Brayman—gathers all this data as this couple chats briefly about their workweek, how they’re looking forward to the weekend and having the chance to relax. So far, the AI has coded their interaction as progressing from “neutral” to “interested.” Both are relaxed—heart rate is around 80. Trust metric is fairly high.

Then, she says, “Oh, by the way. I told my parents they could stay in our room this weekend when they come to visit. We’ll sleep on the couch.”

There’s a pause.

“You already told them?” he says.

“Well, yeah,” she says, a bit dismissively. “They’re my parents. I—”

“You know I don’t sleep well on the couch.”

“Oh, come on.” (Eye roll) “It’s just for the weekend. What’s the big deal?”

“Well, I want to be at my best with your parents. I don’t want to be grumpy because I didn’t—”

“Like you’re ever at your best with my parents anyway, so . . .”

“Wow.” His voice is laced with hurt and sarcasm. “Okay.”

“Why are you making that face? You know it’s true!”

“Hey, I’m trying to make an effort for your parents, and—”

“Oh yeah? Well, why has it taken three years for you to do that? Why is this the weekend?”

“Three years? You don’t think that I’ve made an effort for three years?”

From here the temperature of the interaction spikes rapidly. They interrupt, talk over each other. She accuses him of making her dad cry during a phone conversation recently; he tries to defend himself.

“You just had to slip in a snide little comment, didn’t you,” she says, “while I was just trying to say, ‘Happy Birthday’ to him.”

“I was just trying to be funny!” he shouts.

The AI has clocked both partners’ heart rates rising—his more significantly, to 107 beats per minute. The trust metric has plummeted; his goes critically low, to below 30 percent. Emotion rating nosedives for both. The interaction rapidly skews negative; she attacks, he defends, both speak to each other with contempt. Less than thirty seconds later, the couple turns away from each other, exhausted and angry, giving up on the conversation completely. As the video captured by the AI cuts off, they each stare off in opposite directions.

“Coding” Conflict

The couple above is a real couple who agreed to participate in a new platform we set out to build, designed to help other couples just like them: normal couples who had hit a tough patch (or a tough year . . . or a tough decade) and needed some support and guidance.

In recent years—and accelerated by the pandemic—the demand for skilled therapists has overwhelmed the existing network. Plus, for busy couples who are working full time and perhaps caring for young children or other family, getting in to see someone can be difficult. A lot of couples who really could use some professional guidance are going without for various reasons. We wanted to figure out a way for couples who are struggling to get immediate relief. And we saw that a lot of couples were struggling. So we went to work on a platform that couples could access through a phone, laptop, or tablet—a place they could go to find guidance and tools. And for this to work, we needed an AI that could observe couples interacting and, like the most skilled and experienced trained professional, identify the signs and signals of a conversation going into toxic territory. Therapists are trained to look for these signs: subtle cues in body language and physiology, vocal tone, language choices, and more. Could a computer be programmed to be this sensitive?

In short: yes. And when it comes to the coding of conflict, not only has the AI matched its human counterparts, it’s actually outperformed them.

Much of the data and observations about couples in conflict in this book comes from our decades of work in the Love Lab and from other important and groundbreaking observational studies by ourselves and other researchers. But now we are getting even more sophisticated and granular information from the AI we trained with John’s emotional coding system, called SPAFF, short for Specific Affect Coding System.1

When John was first beginning his research into couples, the field of psychology was struggling to nail down consistent patterns when it came to the personality and behavior of one individual, much less two. The general belief in the field was that studies of couples would be too unreliable to be scientifically useful. Studying a single individual was already so unreliable, the thinking went, that studying two would simply square that unreliability, making it exponentially worse. John, ever the mathematician, set out to prove that false.

He began searching for patterns of behavior in individuals and couples—specifically, sequences of interactions that could be indicative of the couple’s overall happiness and the success (or not) of their relationship.2 Across a series of observational research studies, he and his colleagues worked out a coding system that measured every possible nuance of an interaction between two people: facial expressions, tone of voice, language and rhetoric, physical cues, and more. He and his research partner, Robert Levenson, developed ways for couples participating in the studies to actually rate their own experiences during conflict conversations, offering even more essential data about how people experienced conflict and whether or not their intentions matched their impact. Following couples over time, they were able to track how these coded sequences of interactions between couples aligned with the outcome of their relationship: Did they break up? Did they stay together? If together, were they happy or miserable?

John studied all three groups, gathering data from couples who divorced, couples who stayed happily together, and couples who stayed unhappily together. That data was anything but unreliable.

John found that interactions between couples were incredibly stable over time and highly predictive of the future of their relationship. Using SPAFF to code a couple’s interactions, John was able to predict, with over 90 percent accuracy, the future of that couple’s relationship.3 And a huge part of that prediction was how these couples behaved in conflict.

One of the key pieces to John’s studies on relationships was the “conflict task,” where couples were asked to choose a topic of ongoing conflict and discuss it. Their fight would be taped, and a team of researchers would then pore over the footage, working to code every expression and interaction, down to the hundredth of a second. It’s demanding work, and our researchers needed to be highly trained in order to do this accurately. Before SPAFF, the other coding systems for looking at behavior and interactions were cue based—they looked at actions and expressions, elements of human behavior that you could note visually. The problem is, that left out a ton of essential context. What about vocal tone? A major key will suggest positive emotion, while a minor key indicates the opposite. What about emphasis on certain words versus others? We call that a paralinguistic cue: the same sentence, read with an emphasis on different words, could communicate either frustration or flexibility—you have to take that into account. And what about cultural differences in the use of language and physicality? Our coding system accepts that emotion is conveyed in an interactive way across all communication channels.

About the Author

Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD
Julie Gottman, PhD, is the cofounder of The Gottman Institute and cofounder of Affective Software, Inc. A highly respected clinical psychologist, she is the author of the national bestseller Eight Dates and the New York Times bestseller The Love Prescription. She is sought internationally by media and organizations as an expert adviser on marriage, domestic violence, post-traumatic stress disorders, gay and lesbian adoption, and parenting issues. More by Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD
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About the Author

John Gottman, PhD
World-renowned researchers and clinical psychologists Drs. John and Julie Gottman have dedicated their careers to the research and fostering of healthy, long-lasting relationships. Dr. John Gottman is professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Washington, where he founded the Love Lab, and was named one of the top ten most influential therapists of the past quarter century. Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, co-creator of the immensely popular The Art and Science of Love workshop, was named Washington State Psychologist of the Year and received the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award from Psychotherapy Networker. More by John Gottman, PhD
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