How can staying in neutral be the secret to a great relationship? This would only be true for me if the “neutral” we are referring to is the one on my car. For I am a very bad driver. Maybe there is something wrong with the way my eye sockets are shaped. Maybe I have too much stuff piled in the back of my car. Maybe the area behind my vehicle should be a permanent No Park Zone.
Because I popped out of neutral Sunday morning and crunched right into Brad’s bumper like it was a bag of Doritos. By the time I wrenched the door open, stumbled sobbing up the steps and woke Brad out of a sound sleep, I was pretty much blithering. Brad patted my hand.
“Didn’t you hear me?? I hit your caaaaaaaar! I ruined the one nice thing we ooooooown!!” I wailed. He didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t hear me. “Besides,” I growled. “You shouldn’t have been parked back there anyway.”
Brad sighed and put his pants on.
Evidently, this is the sign of some kinda relationship genius. John Gottman, one of the foremost marriage researchers in the country, says that the neutral, non-emotional interaction during a conflict like this one is the one area that marriage experts ignore. In his book The Science of Trust Gottman explains,
“Neutral affect seems boring, and it is boring. People are far more fascinated by Jerry Spring moments of hostility in doomed marriages and tender, tear-jerking Oprah Winfrey moments in happy, stable marriages. No one thinks that in the context of conflict, just being non-emotional is an asset.”Yup. Can’t say that patting your partner’s hand or going out to survey the damage calmly seems like the kind of proactive, exciting, meaningful strategy I typically endorse for military couples. During deployment especially, I have often groused at my sailor in the most despicable way only to find that he will not flame on (the way I like to do). He stays firmly in neutral even from thousands of miles away. I never thought of that as an asset for us. I never thought about neutrality at all. Yet it could be our actual secret to a long military marriage—especially if I work on being a little more neutral during conflict, too.
Because in Gottman’s research, the neutral interaction was much more common among happier couples than it was among unhappy couples. Gottman and his team went on to discover that over time middle-aged and older couples who stay together become more neutral and less explosive during their conflicts. This doesn’t mean that they are any less passionate about each other or that they have any less to fight about. Instead, this finding suggests that the ability to stay close to neutral helps keep you together.
So that is your Deploy Mentality assignment of the week: Resist the "flame on" approach when your deployed service member or at-home spouse says something provoking on the phone (and you know they will). Instead, try out a deliberately more neutral response. Think beige. Think white bread. Think of a verbal hand patting. And let us hear how that works out for you. Cuz I need to be convinced.
Deploy Mentality is our weekly feature offering one new skill to handle deployment. Post the link on Facebook for your command or include it in your command newsletter. If you would like to contribute a specific Deploy Mentality skill you have learned before, during or after deployment, send it through our Contact form.
Navy wife Jacey Eckhart is Editor of SpouseBuzz and author of I Married a Spartan?? The Care and Feeding of Your Military Marriage available on iTunes, Amazon, and on www.jaceyeckhart.com.