Conflict is necessary and unavoidable in relationships. In fact, many couples argue over not only topics and scenarios but the different ways in which they handle conflict.

There are four major ways in which we respond to threats. These responses often present themselves during conflict: fight, flight, fawn, or freeze. The fight response is the most aggressive– it’s when an individual fights back against a perceived threat. The flight response causes an individual to flee the threat. For some, this looks like leaving the room or hanging up the phone. The fawn response is when a person becomes indebted to the threat, allowing weakness and desperation to wash over them. They often agree to do anything and everything to avoid the threat. The freeze response looks like a complete shutdown in order to avoid the threat. Picture a possum in danger; they “play dead.” 

What is “the threat” in each of these scenarios? During conflict in a romantic relationship, the ultimate threat is disconnection. The threat of disconnection often creates a fear of abandonment, being unaccepted or undesired, unheard or misunderstood. 

Psychotherapist Esther Perel says the conflict in our adult relationships often looks like the same type of fighting we witnessed or were involved with in our families as children. She invites couples to look at conflict from the outside in. 

“Take a look at fighting as if you’re standing on a balcony looking down on conflict between you and your partner,” says Perel. “ It’s less obvious to see the underlying dimensions of conflict, but it’s often not about the actual fight, it’s about the emotion behind the conflict. It’s about what we’re longing to receive.”

So, what happens when you and your spouse are arguing about something and one of you is heated, ready to fight right then and there (also known as fight response) while the other one is in complete shutdown (also known as freeze)?

First of all, it’s important to note that both of you are feeling the threat of disconnection. You’re responding in ways that you learned and developed through your childhood. Neither one of you is wrong or right in how you respond, it’s just the way you’re wired. Secondly, Esther Perel suggests there are a few perspectives you can put into place for these arguments to look different in the future. Perel says these shifts will guide your responses towards connection during conflict in the future.

View conflict as an opportunity for growth.

Arguing can be a gateway to deeper understanding and intimacy. It can also reveal underlying issues and unmet needs, providing a chance for couples to grow together. Couples who see conflict as an opportunity for growth and learning tend to have more resilient relationships. Viewing conflict in this way encourages a proactive approach to resolving issues.

Balance autonomy and togetherness in your relationship.

Conflicts often arise from the tension between these two needs. Addressing this tension can lead to a healthier, more dynamic relationship. Successful couples manage to balance their individual identities with their partnership. This balance prevents codependency and promotes a more fulfilling relationship.

Focus on using your emotional intelligence and empathy in managing conflict.

Understanding and validating each other’s emotions can transform conflicts into opportunities for connection. Emotional intelligence, which includes skills like empathy, self-awareness, and emotional regulation, is strongly linked to relationship satisfaction. Empathy, in particular, helps partners feel understood and valued.

Next time you and your significant other find yourselves in a heated disagreement, remember to think about the motivation behind both of your responses–you’re protecting yourselves from the threat of disconnection. Take a look at your argument from a “balcony” perspective. Be curious about your underlying emotions and what you’re longing to receive. Understanding and utilizing this will turn your conflict into connection and deepen your relationship over time.

Caregiving is often viewed as a noble and selfless act, a testament to an immense strength of love and commitment. However, the emotional and physical toll it takes on romantic relationships is a reality many couples face in silence.

Whether you’re a parent caring for young children, an adult child caring for elderly parents, or a spouse caring for your partner with a disability, it’s crucial to acknowledge how caregiving can strain your relationship and what can be done to counteract these effects.

There’s an intense strain hidden in caregiving that can introduce a myriad of stressors into a relationship.

According to research by the American Psychological Association, caregivers are more likely to experience high levels of stress and depression, which can lead to emotional exhaustion.

This exhaustion often manifests as irritability, decreased sexual desire, and a lack of emotional availability.

Dr. John Gottman emphasizes the importance of emotional connection in maintaining a healthy relationship. When one partner becomes a caregiver, a role shift can disrupt this connection. The caregiver may feel isolated and unsupported, while the other partner might feel neglected or guilty for presumably adding to their stress.

Effective communication, however, is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship, becoming even more crucial in caregiving situations. Dr. Julie Gottman, co-founder of the Gottman Institute, suggests regular “stress-reducing conversations.” These are not problem-solving sessions but opportunities for each partner to express their feelings and concerns without judgment.

Scheduling these conversations can prevent resentment from building up and ensure that both partners feel heard and valued. It’s also essential to express gratitude for each other’s efforts, no matter how small. Simple acknowledgments can go a long way in maintaining a positive atmosphere.

While finding balance is difficult, consistently pursuing it is key to sustaining caregiving responsibilities and relationship health.

Here are a few strategies to keep in mind:

Set Boundaries:

Clearly define caregiving roles and responsibilities to avoid burnout. The caregiver needs to have time to themselves to recharge.

Seek Support:

Utilize respite care services and support groups, or enlist the help of family and friends. Sharing the caregiving load can alleviate stress and provide much-needed breaks.

Prioritize Intimacy:

Physical and emotional intimacy should not be neglected. Plan regular date nights or intimate moments to reconnect as a couple. It doesn’t have to be extravagant – even a quiet evening at home can reignite the spark.

Professional Help:

Couples counseling can be invaluable. Therapists trained in caregiving issues can provide strategies tailored to your specific situation. Online therapy platforms make therapy more accessible than ever.


For caregivers, this might mean taking a walk, reading, or pursuing a hobby. The supportive spouse and/or the care recipient should also engage in activities that improve their well-being.

Caregiving is indeed a profound act of love, but it doesn’t have to come at the cost of your romantic relationship. By recognizing its unique challenges and actively working to address them, couples can emerge stronger and more connected. As Dr. Sue Johnson, the developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), says, “Love is a continual process of tuning in, connecting, missing, and misreading cues, and, at times, disconnecting and repairing.” Embrace this process, and remember that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

In the end, the goal is not just to survive seasons of caregiving but to thrive together. Using these suggested tips can ensure that both partners feel loved, supported, and understood no matter how chaotic or busy life may be.

How often do you say “thank you” to your spouse or significant other? 

If this question makes you feel uncomfortable, guilty, or maybe even ask the counter-question, “For what!?,” you’re not alone.

A recent 50-year study completed by The Gottman Institute found that the single most important phrase couples can use in their relationship is “thank you.” After observing 40,000 couples during therapy sessions, Drs. John and Julie Gottman found relationships with an “enthusiastic culture of appreciation” were more likely to be successful for a lifetime than those who don’t regularly practice gratitude.

Think back through your last couple of days or weeks. How often did you say “thank you” to a total stranger? Of course, you thanked the person who held the door open for you or the waiter who refilled your glass. Do you feel the same urgency to say “thank you” to your partner? Do you express your gratitude when they empty the dishwasher, finish the laundry, or listen while you vent about your day?

In full transparency, after completing this simple exercise, I realized I don’t say “thank you” to my husband as often as I should. It’s not that I’m not grateful for him. Life is just busy. There are a million things on my plate, and I don’t pause long enough to show him how appreciative I am.

The Gottmans’ study also revealed that couples who have been together for an extended period (typically two years or longer) can often develop a culture of “only noticing the things their partner is doing wrong rather than what they’re doing right.” 

For example, if your spouse was home all day but didn’t fold the massive mountain of clean clothes on the dining room table, you may come home and tell them how frustrated you feel. You might automatically assume they were lazy or even left the clothes for you to tackle. But, if you come home to a nicely stacked pile of laundry, you may say nothing. You’re just relieved there’s one less thing on your plate. 

To shift this mindset and create a positive cycle of appreciation in your relationship, the Gottmans suggest giving four things a try:

  1. Practice noticing the positive. Watch your partner and note the positive things they do. 
  2. Say “thank you.” Tell them every time you notice something that makes you feel grateful.
  3. Focus on the present. When you shift your mindset toward the positive, you’ll also have to practice letting go of the past. Don’t let previous actions cloud your desire to build something different in your relationship.
  4. Remember, this isn’t about changing your partner. Creating a cycle of appreciation begins with changing your mental habits, not changing your partner. If your partner isn’t immediately on board, stay positive and express that gratitude. Watch how contagious gratitude can be.

As you think about this information and how to apply it to your relationship, remember that creating new cycles and building new thought patterns doesn’t come easy. In fact, it can be quite challenging. First Things First is always here to support you. We have resources on our website and provide one-on-one relationship coaching if needed! Find out more about this service at

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at [email protected].

Have you ever felt like everything you say or do rubs your partner the wrong way?

Here’s an example: You say, “We should go out to eat tonight and find some really good pasta.” Your significant other responds, “Right, because the pasta I cook for you at home is never good enough.” You’re left wondering what happened and where their defensive attitude came from.

Or perhaps you’re the one who feels consistently cut down by your spouse.

You try time and time again to connect with them, please them, and build intimacy. Still, you feel your efforts are met with a lack of desire, understanding, and appreciation. Overall, you feel alone and misunderstood.

If either of these examples resonates with you, your relationship could be stuck in the Negative Override Sentiment.

According to University of Oregon professor emeritus and psychologist Robert Weiss, all couples develop sentiment overrides and use them regularly during interactions. 

“In essence, the residual emotions from every interaction (words, gestures, facial expression, or body language) accumulate over time, becoming a new dimension of the relationship that derails the objectivity of current interactions,” says Weiss. “One or both partners silently harbor the emotions of feeling unimportant, unwanted, or uncared for and now perceive everything said with a negative filter.”

For many significant others, this negative attitude or filter can come as a shock because they don’t recall doing or saying anything to warrant their partner’s underlying disdain for them. 

However, the Negative Override Sentiment was built every time you were late, and your partner was eagerly waiting for you. It grew in your partner when you, perhaps unintentionally but frequently ignored communication or interests that were important to them. Negative Override Sentiment may have smoldered in your partner because you simply didn’t show appreciation for a meal they cooked, an errand they ran, or a large task they completed.

Dr. John Gottman and his team at the Gottman Research Institute recently followed 96 couples to better understand the Negative Override Sentiment. Their study found an antidote they named the Positive Override Sentiment. Here’s how it works: 

  • One partner makes a statement such as, “We should go on vacation. We haven’t been anywhere together in quite a while.” 
  • The significant other may use the Negative Sentiment Override and respond with something like, “Well, what do you want me to do? Quit my job so we can spend more time together? I never have enough time to give you.” 
  • The other partner may have shut down or become defensive in the past. But, this is an opportunity to nip the negativity in the bud and create a new environment for the relationship by using a Positive Sentiment Override response such as: “I miss our vacations. You’re really fun to hang out with. Do you remember that one time at the beach when we (insert positive memory here).”

The goal of using the Positive Sentiment Override antidote is to re-establish hope in the relationship, remember moments when both partners felt more positive toward each other, and establish the opportunity to create positive interactions again. 

What if both people in the relationship are stuck in the Negative Sentiment Override? Research shows that it only takes one partner to change the usual rhythm of the relationship. As with any new dance, it may feel a little awkward and uncomfortable at times, but with a bit of practice and persistence, you can kick the Negative Override Sentiment to the curb and build a stronger connection over time.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

I just turned 33 years old. I married my husband when I was 23, which means we’re approaching our 10-year anniversary. My husband was 30 when we married, which means he’s approaching the big 4-0 in just a few short months. (If you know him, please remind him of this. He loves it.)

I won’t bore you with all the details of how we met, but it started with a college research project I was working on.

My goal was to write a journalistic research paper on why the average age of marriage was quickly on the rise. In 1990, the average age to marry was 20 for women and 23 for men. By 2010, the average age had risen to 29 for women and 30 for men. My project guidelines required me to find three unbiased interviewees. So, I asked a 29-year-old barista from Starbucks, whom I barely knew, if I could ask him a few questions about his views on romantic relationships and marriage. 

What I learned about my husband during that interview was he really admired marriage and saw it as a future goal.

He had a history of mismatched relationships that consisted of rivaling ideals and misaligned commitments. However, he revered marriage and was consistently in pursuit of finding “the right person.” This surprised me. He drove a motorcycle, had tattoos, played guitar, and categorized himself as an artist. I made an unfair assumption that he was probably just “playing the field” or “having fun.” To my surprise, we were married 16 months later.

According to a Pew Research study released this June, America has reached the highest number of never-married individuals on record.

Currently, 25% of 40-year-olds or older have never been married. This is a significant increase from 20% in 2010, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data. With the rise in cohabitation, it’s tempting to assume the majority of these individuals are living with someone. However, only 22% reported they are currently cohabitating. 

While these findings alone may lead us to believe that marriage is dead in our country, there’s another side to the story.

This 2023 study also revealed 63% of Americans believe it is important for couples to get married if they intend to spend the rest of their lives together. A similar study released by Pew in 2014 reported only 53% of Americans felt this way, revealing a marked increase in this viewpoint over the last decade. 

Here’s why this matters–while fewer people are getting married overall, it’s not because they don’t have the desire to do so or, like my husband, revere marriage itself as a major step in commitment. In general, individuals want to be more cautious with making commitments and “test their relationship” by living together or staying together for longer lengths of time before saying, “I do.” Not to mention the cultural trend to obtain a degree and build a career before considering marriage at all. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, but it does play a major role in establishing priorities for how we measure “success” and “fulfillment” in life.

This theory holds true across race, ethnicity, and socio-economic divides as well.

A 2021 study published by the National Library of Medicine found that low-income individuals desired marriage for themselves and saw it as a standard for living a fulfilling life. However, a multitude of factors kept them from pursuing and committing to relationships, including money problems, substance abuse, and generational trauma.

While the marriage rate is certainly decreasing across our nation, I’d like to propose a different interpretation.

It’s not because we don’t desire it; it’s because we’ve slowly shifted its priority. While the reasons why are myriad, and every situation and relationship has its own story to tell, marriage isn’t dead. (But it has become the houseplant in the corner we forget to care for.)

We know having the houseplant has many benefits for our overall health, including better air quality in our home and an overall mental health boost. But there are a million other things on our to-do lists that can keep us from prioritizing those sad, drooping leaves).

What can we do to help marriage become more of a priority again in our nation? Does it matter in the long run? In next week’s column, we’ll take a look at building a better understanding of commitment and the key elements of healthy relationships. We’ll also take a fresh look at the influence of generational cycles.

Read part 2 here!

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

Photo by Levi Alvarez on Unsplash

In last week’s column, I suggested a different interpretation of the decline of marriage as an essential institution in our country. Recent studies from Pew Research and the National Council for Family Relations indicate that the majority of Americans still desire and revere marriage but are often leery of the long-term commitment it requires and feel other milestones are more important, such as education, careers and building a solid financial foundation as an individual.

From this understanding, there are two questions: 1.) Does marriage matter? 2.) Can we do anything to make marriage more of a priority and more appealing?

“The family structure in and of itself is an important factor in reducing poverty: children raised in single-parent families are nearly five times as likely to be poor as those in married-couple families,” reports the AEI-Brookings Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity. In their extensive 88-page report, the Brookings Working Group provides four recommendations, the first is to “promote marriage as the most reliable route to family stability and resources.” 

The Brookings Institute isn’t the only nonpartisan research group reporting marriage as a pathway out of poverty and into stability and opportunity. Pew Research, The American Enterprise Institute, The RAND Corporation, and others have all contributed studies or meta-analyses demonstrating marriage as a necessity for generational financial stability. In their opinion, marriage still matters for the future of families in our country.

However, I would be failing you as the reader if I didn’t address the obvious– telling people that marriage should be a priority in their life because of financial reasons is not very, dare I say, romantic. And the idea that simply saying “I do” provides enough stability to create a positive generational impact can set couples and families up for disappointment. 

Let’s look at the second question.

Can we do anything to make marriage more of a priority and more appealing? 

Robert Emery, a professor at the University of Virginia, says that, in past generations, people thought of marriage as “more of a businesslike relationship.” He argues that the marriage rates fell and divorce rates rose when people started thinking less with their wallets and more with their hearts.

“The notion today is that marriage is about love and love is about personal fulfillment,” Emery says. Mutual personal fulfillment is a complex and evolving goal. While many couples are no longer financially dependent on each other, individuals who no longer feel fulfilled in a relationship may more easily leave a marriage or not even feel the need to commit to marriage in the first place. This is why it’s so important to stress the health of the marriage relationship. 

Harvard University, The American Psychological Association, and The Mental Health Foundation have all conducted studies within the last decade that found healthy marriage relationships can provide these profound benefits for both men and women:

  • A longer life-expectancy
  • Less risk of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse
  • Better immune system and physical health 
  • Less risk of mental health disorders or issues for children
  • Fewer feelings of loneliness and hopelessness
  • A more optimistic outlook on life overall

Likewise, the same organizations reported that an unhealthy marriage can have the opposite effects and lead to additional issues such as domestic violence. 

The key takeaway is that marriage as a social structure can provide more financial stability.

But marriage can have a much more significant impact on society and future generations if we focus on relational health and not just the act of marriage.

To make marriage more appealing and desirable overall, we must be willing to note the fulfilling benefits of a healthy relationship. We must normalize that marriage takes work, but in the words of the Peace Corps, it may just be the toughest job you’ll ever love.

Read part 1 here!

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash

My husband and I just celebrated ten years of marriage. We were overwhelmed by support from friends and family. Messages poured in through social media and texts: “What an accomplishment!”, “A huge success!”, “A whole decade of life together under your belt!” 

While it felt good to look back over the years and note the milestones we’ve accomplished together, I couldn’t help but think: Is a length of time the best measure of marital success? What about the health of the relationship?

While it is crucial for couples to celebrate their anniversary and every milestone in their relationship together, I sometimes worry we (as a collective society) put more emphasis on the number of years than we should. It can be easy to assume because two people have stayed together for a significant amount of time, they have a thriving relationship. But we’ve all been around those couples–the ones who may have been together for a long time but seem miserable and tired of each other.

What if the collective support for married couples focused more on celebrating and encouraging healthy connection instead of only glorifying the amount of time they “stuck it out together?” 

Decades of research, including recent studies published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, suggests that the quality of the relationship is a more accurate predictor of marital satisfaction than the number of years spent together.

Longevity alone does not guarantee a fulfilling and harmonious environment for the couple.

In other words, milestone anniversaries are undoubtedly worth celebrating, but the sheer length of a marriage doesn’t guarantee its success or happiness. It also doesn’t guarantee that future generations will have the skills and understanding they need to develop thriving families.

Psychologist Dr. David Banks says couples should not only see their anniversary as a time to celebrate the longevity of their relationship but as a time to evaluate the quality of their marriage. “As a couple reaches another year together, they should strive to ‘level up.’ Think about what you can do to make your relationship stronger year after year. The length of time isn’t the only measure of success,” says Dr. Banks.

So, what does a healthy marriage look like? And how can we encourage married couples to focus on increasing their relationship quality as the clock ticks by?

According to the Journal of Marriage and Family, there are five pillars of a healthy marriage:

1: Communication:

Effective communication is the bedrock of a healthy marriage. Couples who openly express their needs, concerns, and feelings create a foundation of understanding and connection.

2: Emotional Intimacy:

Prioritizing emotional intimacy is paramount to marital satisfaction and creating a solid foundation for generational relational health. It involves vulnerability, trust, and a deep emotional connection that withstands the test of time.

3: Shared Goals and Values:

Couples with shared goals and values tend to weather challenges more successfully. Aligning aspirations and beliefs creates a sense of purpose that can strengthen the bond between partners.

4: Adaptability and Growth:

Embracing change and supporting each other’s personal development are crucial for long-term success.

5: Seeking Professional Help:

When challenges arise, seeking the guidance of a marriage counselor or therapist can provide valuable insights and tools to navigate difficulties. Proactive efforts to address issues contribute to the resilience of a marriage.

For nearly three decades, First Things First has advocated for the benefits of a healthy marriage.

For those benefits to be seen and experienced in our homes, communities, and throughout generations, it’s imperative to shift our focus from the number of years to the quality of connection. As we redefine success in marriage, let’s embrace the notion that a healthy, fulfilling partnership is the true measure of success, regardless of the number of candles on the anniversary cake.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at [email protected].

Recent studies have shown that being married can make people happier compared to those who aren’t married. Economist Sam Peltzman’s latest research suggests that marriage is the key factor in determining happiness, with married individuals being 30% more likely to report being happy than unmarried individuals.

Further studies indicate that married people tend to have better mental well-being overall. For example, the 2022 Cooperative Election Study surveyed 60,000 Americans and found that almost 60% of married couples rated their mental health as “good” or “very good,” compared to only 38.4% of unmarried individuals.

These benefits of marriage extend regardless of how long the couple has been married or their demographic background. Marriage seems to boost mental health right from the start and continues to provide benefits over time, affecting both men and women, young and old, rich and poor, and people from various ethnicities and political views.

But what exactly makes marriage so beneficial for mental well-being? Let’s break it down:

  • A Strong Support System: Having a spouse can provide support during tough times, offering comfort and encouragement that helps individuals cope with stress and challenges.
  • Stability: Marriage offers a sense of security and stability through commitment and shared responsibilities, providing a solid foundation for psychological well-being.
  • Opportunities for Growth: Within a marriage, individuals are challenged to grow and develop personally, fostering better communication, empathy, and resilience.
  • Biochemical Boost: Loving relationships trigger the release of hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, which are associated with reduced stress levels and improved mood.

Despite these benefits, divorce rates remain high, with many couples citing a lack of commitment as the primary reason for their separation, even more so than infidelity. Building a fulfilling marriage requires deep commitment and a willingness to work on the relationship.

Maybe building a relationship that has all these benefits is harder than some couples are prepared for. If marriage is going to provide the well-being it’s capable of, individuals must be deeply committed to the relationship and to each other. They must also have a desire to cultivate and experience the type of marriage worth benefitting from.