Rodale Books, New York, N.Y., 2010; $24.99.
The reality is that “nobody qualifies as perfect,” but this reality need not stand in a couple’s way when it comes to cheering each other’s good qualities, according to Laurie Puhn, author of “Fight Less, Love More.” Making “a conscious effort to spotlight the many little things that are right” about each other is all to a couple’s good, she believes.
Puhn invites readers to learn to separate their mate’s “mistakes and wrongdoings from the positive and helpful things” that he or she does. This is neither a matter of “pretending that your mate is perfect” nor of accepting wrongdoing, she explains. But she adds:
“In a healthy relationship, most of us live in the real zone. We recognize our partner’s flaws and deal with them through effective communication, but we also take the time to recognize and admire his or her strengths and attributes.”
Strategies for effective communication are central to Puhn’s book. She closely examines the “weak verbal habits” that can sabotage a couple’s relationship and says she has found “that most marital conflicts stem not from emotional problems but from weak communication skills.”
Puhn is a Harvard-trained lawyer who is in private practice as a mediator working with couples. She draws upon that work to diagnose the communication breakdowns that result when couples criticize each other excessively, for example, or when one partner overreacts to something the other says, or does, or does not do. I found her insightful when she wrote:
“Changing your mate’s undesirable qualities or habits won’t happen through threats or name-calling. It doesn’t happen when you’re assuming, misjudging and implying that your mate is to blame for any and all of what went wrong that day, that week or that year.”
Puhn wants couples to recognize that overreacting is unacceptable and only heightens “anger and resentment, causing retaliation.” She also helps readers see that overreactions often result when one person jumps to conclusions about the other’s motives for saying or doing something that seemed annoying.
But while Puhn takes care to explain what often goes wrong in a couple’s communication, she is equally careful in spelling out what a couple can do to assure that their communication goes right. Her book is centered around steps couples can try out for communicating in ways that lead toward understanding and away from painful arguments.
Threaded through this book is Puhn’s discussion of “the five love conditions” – five qualities or attitudes she considers essential if love is to survive and thrive: appreciation, respect, compassion, trust and companionship. Often, she shows, when trouble develops in a couple’s relationship it is because one of these qualities is getting slighted.
The author urges couples consciously to choose “to show respect, not disrespect; appreciation, not neglect; cooperation, not competition; and vulnerability not indifference.” If a couple’s relationship is to be “happy and satisfying,” they need to “say and do things” every day “to create and sustain [the five love] conditions,” Puhn says.
She asks readers: “Do you want to live in a compassionate world or a critical one? Do you want to be easy to love or difficult to be around?” In one chapter she attempts to raise awareness of the moments when people have a choice between responding to each other in harshly critical ways or with “loving compassion.”
Driving home her point, Puhn says to couples: “When everyday annoyances pop up and you choose to respond with compassion instead of irritation, you’ll initiate a loving interaction filled with kindness and understanding instead of a heated exchange that leaves you both feeling stung.”
The damage done to a couple’s relationship and overall sense of intimacy by one partner’s neglect of the other is assessed in one chapter. Puhn wants couples to give emotional intimacy its due, and “the core of emotional intimacy is shared experience,” she says. She cautions couples that the pulse of their relationship will weaken if they stop growing, stop “doing new things together” because other interests and responsibilities have become their priority.
Yet, Puhn insists that “it doesn’t take much” to assure that the framework provided by emotional intimacy remains solid. She states, “You have hundreds of opportunities each day to show your mate that he or she matters to you, … that he or she is your best friend and top priority.”