Article By Rhaina Cohen
~ September 2021 ~ For decades, when Liz Cutler’s husband, Tom Kreutz, did something that bothered her, Cutler would sometimes pull out a scrap of paper from the back of her desk drawer. On it she would scribble down her grievances: maybe Kreutz had stayed late at work without giving her a heads-up, or maybe he’d allowed their kids to do something she considered risky. The list was Cutler’s way of honoring a promise she and her husband had made. They would talk about their frustrations only in scheduled meetings—which they held once a year for a time, and later, every three months. It’s a system they’ve adhered to for more than 40 years.
Any psychologist will tell you that conflict is both an inevitable and a vital part of a close relationship. The challenge—which can make the difference between a lasting, satisfying partnership and one that combusts—is figuring out how to manage conflict constructively.
Conventional wisdom treats the passage of time as an adversary. We’re told not to “bottle up” hard feelings, let annoyance fester, or go to bed angry. Stockpiling grievances, many therapists warn, invites resentment and sets the stage for partners to erupt.
Cutler and Kreutz, and other partners who have systems of scheduled disagreement, have discovered that delaying hard conversations has the potential to fortify, not corrode, relationships.
For them, preplanned meetings in which both parties are prepared for difficult discussions drain some of the most painful emotions from conflict. Partners are then able to focus on solving problems and to do so cooperatively and creatively—sometimes even finding delight in the process. Researchers and clinicians have also come to discover what Cutler and Kreutz figured out on their own—that when tackling challenges in relationships, having a little distance and a recurring calendar invite can help.
The first time Cutler and Kreutz spoke, she was standing behind him in a cafeteria at Duke University in 1974. She tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Hey, how come sometimes you’re so nice, and sometimes you’re such a jerk?”
Taken aback, Kreutz said, “I don’t even know you.”
The two walked through the cafeteria, trays in hand, arguing. Cutler was convinced that Kreutz was the guy with whom she’d spent an entire night dancing—and who sometimes acted as if he didn’t know her when she saw him on campus. (She would later realize that the true offender was a Kreutz look-alike.) Over dinner, this argument shifted into a debate about the opposing moral principles of Cutler’s Judaism and Kreutz’s Catholicism. A few days later, they continued that debate for five hours while perched in the branches of a camellia tree.
“I remember sitting in that tree and just falling in love right there,” Kreutz told me. He marveled at all that Cutler had done: ballet, karate, camping, canoeing, climbing. Cutler felt that she had met her match. It was hard to find something Kreutz couldn’t do: One day, she’d learn that he knew how to scuba dive; another, she’d discover that he put his climbing skills to use by scaling the side of Duke’s chapel. Kreutz even took it upon himself to learn things that she cared about, like teaching himself Hebrew while working on a factory line one summer.
The new couple became known for their inseparability. Even when Cutler walked on campus by herself, people would call out, “Hi, LizandTom!” They were equally well known for their operatic conflicts. “Our friends couldn’t stand it,” Cutler recalled, “because we would escalate to the point where one of us would get in the car and drive away.” Once, Kreutz put his fist through a wall.
“Showing anger in dramatic ways was clearly part of our back-and-forth,” Kreutz said.
When Cutler studied abroad during her junior year, they kept in touch through pay phones and letters written on wispy blue aerogram papers. But when she returned to Duke, after spending nine months on her own, Cutler felt stifled by Kreutz’s desire to be with her constantly. She didn’t want to lose him, but she didn’t want to be “swallowed up” by the relationship. They decided to make a contract: They would stay together for another year, and as part of that agreement, they’d try to resolve what wasn’t working well, including their frequent fights and insufficient boundaries. When the year was up, they would determine whether to continue the relationship.
This conversation, in which they spent a full day wandering around Duke’s campus hashing things out, brought the couple a sense of relief. They each had their say and felt the other took their concerns seriously. When they hit the one-year mark, they agreed to continue the relationship for another year—and to re-up the contract discussion. Soon it became an annual event, which they dubbed “contract talks.” About a decade in, they realized that a year was long enough for their problems to calcify, so they made their contract talks quarterly affairs.
They set norms governing the space, time, and tone for their discussions. They’d escape to somewhere quiet and pleasant—a path where they could take a long walk, or occasionally the house in Michigan where Cutler had spent summers as a kid. They established “rules of engagement.” Among them: Don’t shut down the other person’s observations. If one person says that something is a problem for the relationship—even if the other person doesn’t think it’s important—it’s a problem. Prepare to hear criticism, admit your faults, and be grateful for your partner. Commit to working on the relationship for the long haul, and accept that change might come in baby steps.
By their late 30s, Cutler and Kreutz were reserving most of their problem-solving for contract talks. With those talks scheduled, they didn’t feel compelled to raise issues in the moment. And they noticed that by waiting, they could avoid the pain and gamesmanship of impulsive arguments; in the midst of a fight, they were too preoccupied with “winning” to attempt to solve problems. For Cutler, the distance often brought clarity. By the time she had read through the paper in her desk drawer to prepare for an upcoming contract talk, she would deem some of the entries too trivial to raise. Their “rules of engagement” specified that they had to be “in an emotionally calm state”—a stipulation that the two say they’ve found easy to follow. The pause between the initial frustration and the discussion, Cutler told me, “gives you time to put your little ego to bed and to be the grown-up, and not the child inside you.”
Once the couple had kids, both the substance and structure of their talks changed. They added on family contract talks to give their boys a space to speak openly with them. Their two oldest sons went on to voluntarily conduct “brother contract talks” with each other.
The support structure of contract talks began to take on new significance for the family when their youngest son, Isaac, was 2 and a half. Isaac had several strokes, was in a coma, and was diagnosed with cancer. Cutler remembers that a social worker cautioned her and Kreutz that their relationship might be tested by the stress of seeing their son in pain and round-the-clock caregiving. They were told that the majority of couples who have a child as ill as Isaac break up.
Twenty-four years later, Cutler and Kreutz are still together. “Do I think contract talks saved us?” Cutler said. “Absolutely.”
James Córdova, a psychology professor at Clark University, wants people to treat relationships the way they treat their teeth. People don’t only go to the dentist when they have a toothache; they get preventive treatment to remove the buildup of plaque and tartar that causes tooth decay. By contrast, many partners seek help only when their problems are so acute that the relationship is irreparably damaged. At that stage, couples receive the equivalent of emergency-room treatment.
Córdova believes that, as with teeth, “inside intimate relationships, there is also a naturally occurring corrosive process.” We hurt each other. And when we’re hurt, we tend to do one of two things: We hurt our partner back or withdraw. “Neither one of those natural instincts is particularly conducive to long-term intimate health,” Córdova told me.
We can hurt one another when disagreements shove the regions of our brain that are responsible for rational thinking into the back seat. When we react without taking time to cool off, we might sting our partner to score points or defend ourselves. And, chances are, that behavior won’t bring a feeling of catharsis. At best, venting may provide a temporary mood boost—but in many cases it doesn’t accomplish even that. In a seminal psychology study, participants who sat quietly right after their anger was provoked became less angry than those who were instructed to vent.
Instead of treating anger as steam that needs to be released, we seem to be better off running out the clock on it. Research points to the value of taking a time-out—specifically in order to “pause and calm down, not pause and reload.” When people use the time-out to take an impartial view of the incident or even distract themselves—rather than stew in their frustration—their anger tends to subside, and they’re less likely to try to punish the other person. The mindset that both parties have when they reconvene matters too. Morton Deutsch, a prominent conflict-resolution expert, explains that partners can have constructive disagreement if they foster a mindset focused on learning rather than winning, reframe conflict as a mutual problem to be solved jointly, and set norms of cooperation (read: Cutler and Kreutz’s “rules of engagement”).
Two decades ago, Córdova designed a process that threads together these insights. He describes it as the marital-health equivalent of the six-month dental visit or annual physical. Over two sessions, the “Marriage Checkup” helps couples assess their strengths and weaknesses. In randomized controlled trials on a variety of populations, Córdova and his team have consistently found that partners who use the Marriage Checkup report improved marital satisfaction and intimacy as well as other important indicators of relationship health.
Unlike Cutler and Kreutz’s contract talks, the Marriage Checkup is conducted by a trained third party. It also doesn’t encourage partners to confine all conflict to these sessions. The clinicians I spoke with said they wouldn’t recommend that most couples wait months to discuss every relationship problem. Urgent issues or small annoyances that can easily be fixed, they explained, are generally worth raising relatively quickly, though it’s still worth waiting a few hours or even days for heightened emotions to dissipate. Partners can address bigger issues—such as a change in expectations in the relationship—weeks down the line, or longer. But, they said, if more spaced-out discussions such as contract talks work for a couple, nothing’s wrong with that.
Córdova says that what the Marriage Checkup shares with contract talks is its fundamental premise that partners need regular, scheduled times to tend to the knots in their relationship.
This can help people like Cutler and Kreutz, whose propensity for heated fights might prevent them from having clearheaded, productive conversations about their disagreements. It’s also useful in relationships in which people—such as business partners Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur—hide from conflict.
Besides being close friends, Cerulo and Mazur have a relationship that can be summed up in a string of words with the prefix co-: They’ve been co-owners of a business, co-authors of the book Work Wife, and co-hosts of a podcast. After they sold their start-up to a larger company, they used their newfound resources to hire the management coach Ben Michaelis. Michaelis, who’s also a clinical psychologist, quickly noticed that, like many people, they tended to avoid conflict. (Cerulo ascribes this tendency to her “extremely midwestern” upbringing.) He said they needed to figure out how to deal with disagreement or the tension would break their partnership. Cerulo and Mazur had sensed that this avoidance made their partnership feel fragile and slowed them down when it came to solving problems for their business. They lived in fear that one fight would wreck everything. Michaelis told them to start by vocalizing low-stakes gripes. It was exposure therapy for the conflict-averse.
In time, Cerulo and Mazur were able to tackle thornier issues that could breed resentment if left unaddressed—questions of who’s in charge, who is respected more by their team, who gets to do more exciting work. (These areas of friction aren’t so different from those in romantic relationships.) Their weekly drive to their parent company turned out to be an ideal environment in which to talk about these topics. The Brooklyn–to–New Jersey trip was a regular event, which removed the dread of finding a time to discuss a tough subject; the length of the drive set a time limit on the conversation; and sitting side by side meant they didn’t have to look each other in the eye. For Cerulo and Mazur, these were ripe conditions for practicing what Michaelis calls “contained disagreement.”
On one car ride—during a trip in California—Mazur opened up about a source of anxiety for her. She and Cerulo had recently had a business meeting with a woman who’d brought her child along at the last minute. The kid was distracting, and Cerulo complained that they should have rescheduled. These comments about a working parent inflamed a sensitive subject for Mazur. She thought she might want to have kids and knew Cerulo didn’t. Part of what made Mazur unsure about parenthood was her concern about how having children would affect her partnership and friendship with Cerulo. On their drive, Mazur explained what had been going on in her head. Cerulo told Mazur she was looking forward to being part of her kids’ lives one day, and shared her own correlating insecurity: that people in their social circle were becoming parents, and Cerulo worried about being isolated. In that conversation and others, they planned for how to make space in their partnership and friendship for parenthood. When Mazur eventually did have a child and went on maternity leave, Cerulo visited her twice a week. Those drop-ins allowed Mazur to keep up to speed on their company, and Cerulo got to witness her friend’s life as a new parent.
Scheduled disagreement forces high-conflict partners to cool down and conflict-averse pairs to broach difficult topics. This system also helps partners who have mismatched tendencies. Ayanna Abrams, a psychologist who works with couples, says many partners assume the role of either “the pursuer” or “the distancer.” For instance, the pursuer might want to address conflict immediately for fear that their partner won’t come to the table later, while the distancer might feel overwhelmed when asked to deal with disagreement in the heat of the moment and want to postpone. A chase ensues.
Kristen Berman and Phil Levin, a couple based in Oakland, often find that one of them is more eager to talk through a hard topic than the other. Their “play days”—quarterly meetings in which they tackle anything they deem important to their relationship—have helped resolve this difference. The partner who’s itching to have the conversation can be patient because they know they’ll be able to talk about it in an upcoming meeting. The person who’s less keen to immediately talk knows they have time to prepare for the conversation. “I think it’s taken a lot of the weight and the stress and the differential urgency on these topics out of the equation,” Levin told me.
Play days share key features with Cutler and Kreutz’s contract talks. Berman and Levin go on a mostly fun and romantic retreat; they look forward to the day. And, like Cutler and Kreutz, they use the time to get a bird’s-eye view of their relationship and come up with work-arounds to recurring pain points. One play day, Berman and Levin decided to identify persistent sources of tension. Two stood out. The first, in Berman’s diplomatic terms, is that “Phil and I look at the clock a bit differently”—she’s more concerned with timeliness than he is, and they tend to feel different levels of urgency about shared projects. For instance, they disagreed over how quickly they should respond to my follow-up questions for this article. They gave this type of disagreement a name: Steve. The other recurring argument they identified is about who does more of the thankless tasks around their home. And thus was born Fred.
“We sort of say we’re in a relationship with the two of us and also Fred and Steve,” Levin explained. “These are parts of our relationship, routine fights that we have in different ways over and over again.” Berman and Levin use these characters to identify and laugh about these disagreements when they’re unfolding. If they’re having a spat about how important a task is, one might say, “Oh, it looks like Fred has arrived.”
Most play days, they’re not focused on christening their arguments. Their main agenda item tends to be a big decision—such as where to live, whether to get married, and whether to have kids. These questions could easily come up in conversation anytime they hear that someone is moving or they go to a wedding or learn that a friend is pregnant; they could end up dominating day-to-day conversations.
For instance, Berman recently visited a friend who has two children and returned home “wildly overwhelmed” by the idea of being a mother. When she shared how she was feeling with Levin, he could have taken it as a message that she was leaning away from having kids. The couple could have plunged into a long discussion about whether they should be parents. Neither happened. Instead, Levin was a sounding board for Berman’s feelings. And they were able to limit their attention to the particular event in front of them because they knew that the broader discussion about whether to have kids was already on the calendar. By containing difficult decision making to play days, Berman finds that the conversations that happen in between have “more lightness.”
Córdova says their setup is wise because relationships flourish when they’re filled with far more positive moments than negative ones. He cites research from the psychologist John Gottman, who has found that stable and happy marriages have a roughly 5-to-1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. If arguments and hard conversations pervade a couple’s time together, a healthy ratio can drop off. Córdova likens Berman and Levin’s system to “worry time,” a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy in which patients note what they’re feeling, set their worrying thoughts aside, and reengage with them at a designated time. It’s the difference between having dirty clothes strewn across a room and having those same garments tucked in a laundry basket. The laundry has to be done either way, but if it’s in a basket, you don’t have to be reminded of it every time you open the door.
Nearly 50 years after Cutler and Kreutz got into a row at the college cafeteria, they’ve come to a place of repose in their marriage. Sitting at their dining-room table in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2019, Cutler and Kreutz rifled through a pile of notes from several decades worth of contract talks, their commitments and problem-solving techniques scrawled on napkins, jotted on a paper place mat, and, in more recent years, typed up. I could see the trajectory of their relationship contained in those scattered papers.
Kreutz picked out a page. It’s from 1990, and like the others in the stack, it has a series of admonitions and reminders. Several bullet points are the couple’s pleas to themselves to tamp down their sniping.
“Don’t take advantage of self-revelation,” Kreutz read aloud. Cutler explained: If one of them was to admit that they acted like a jerk at a particular moment, the other shouldn’t jump in to say, “Yeah, you sure were!” Reading through the list, Kreutz observed that at the time, they were clearly struggling to communicate.
The notes’ content evolves over the years. The earlier contract talks revolved around behaving more generously toward each other. Once their children come into the picture, the pages turn into a bevy of logistical commitments, attempts to relieve each other’s stress and carve out time as a couple and as individuals.
In recent years, their conversations have changed again, this time focusing less on the relationship and more on how to help the other person thrive. Cutler told me about contract talks they had in the summer of 2018, walking along Lake Michigan on a windy night. Cutler asked Kreutz, “So do we have anything we need to talk about between us?” They looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Not really.” It had been a great year. So they asked each other how they were feeling about work, how their health was, how strong their friendships were. Decades before this particular contract talk, Cutler had stopped listing grievances on a piece of paper. She didn’t need to anymore.
Cutler said contract talks create a feedback loop. “The more you do them, the more you feel heard. The more you feel understood, the less you argue.” And the less you argue, “the less you need them.”
It’s hard to imagine a time when the couple would have needed contract talks more than in the past year and a half. Since March 2020, their son Isaac, who’s 26, has been in and out of the hospital more than a dozen times. For a while, Cutler and Kreutz believed their son might die. They shifted their priorities to focus on Isaac and paused contract talks for the first time. “We didn’t have five minutes to be people ourselves,” Cutler said. Working on their relationship “became not secondary, but tertiary.”
Instead, the couple has had to rely on the scaffolding that contract talks constructed—even as Isaac’s health has improved somewhat over the last few months. When Cutler recently got annoyed, she used a code word that Kreutz had devised in contract talks decades ago. Rather than getting short with each other, as they often did early in their relationship, their reflex in tense moments is to ask how they can support their spouse. Amid the stress and grief of living through a parent’s worst nightmare, the scaffolding is keeping them upright.