How Two Googlers Use Engineering Techniques to Solve Marital Disputes

I approached finding a spouse the way I do even the most emotional decisions: with logic. A few years ago, before I started dating, I wrote a list of requirements and some optional good-to-have features, similar to how one might decide on a smartphone. A friend who was helping me complained that I eliminated 90 percent of the population with my requirements, but this was intentional: I wanted to narrow the pool so I didn’t waste time on incompatible matches.

Years of software development had taught me the value of precisely defined requirements. And it worked. Within a few days, I met an awesome geek who was capable of making me look sentimental. After weeks of relationship testing, we agreed to move forward. A year later we were married.

Our relationship progressed happily and smoothly. From the beginning, we had some simple rules that prevented common household conflicts. For example, when it comes to doing chores (and most other things), we value efficiency over equality. It is not about whether we are splitting tasks 50–50, but more about how quickly and effectively we can get things done. If that means I carry out most or all of the workload, I’m OK with that, knowing that he is better than me at other things, and he does them willingly. We agreed to treat the relationship like one functioning unit, with each part compensating for the other’s weaknesses.

Needless to say, I was not prepared for a conflict to emerge from an inane argument. On a Saturday morning, coffee in hand, I turned on HBO. All week, I’d been waiting to watch Montage of Heck, a documentary about Kurt Cobain. I have been a huge Nirvana fan since I was a teenager. I set the volume to a level that’s needed to enjoy grunge music and sat down. I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice my husband until he was directly in my line of sight.

“What is this?” he asked, looking rather confused.

I paused the show and explained my fervor for alternative rock. To my surprise, that conversation did not end there. He kept asking more questions and offered unsolicited suggestions.

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“You should watch TED talks. They are more useful,” came one of his proposals; this was followed by recommendations for podcasts, books, and even programming languages that I could be mastering instead.

“They are not comparable. I’m not looking to kill time. I deliberately want to watch this,” I retorted. As a compromise, I offered to lower the volume. But he remained perplexed by the music’s appeal to me. The back-and forth intensified, patience dwindled, giving way to undiluted frustration. We started to talk past each other.

“Why are we talking like this?” he asked.

Dealing with volatile emotions has never been our strength. “Let’s use the whiteboard,” I suggested, and he agreed. Most people have paintings in their living rooms, but we favor a huge whiteboard that serves a more practical purpose.

Software developers sometimes use a technique called sequence diagram to illustrate communication flows. With a mug of now-cold coffee in one hand and a blue marker in the other, I delved in. I drew a diagram of events and interactions that had turned a mundane communication into an emotional altercation. I used a red marker to highlight areas where our conversation had escalated.

He stood back quietly and observed, interrupting only to ask clarifying questions. Thanks to whiteboarding, instead of using the energy against each other, we were now using it to solve a common problem, and the tension began to dissipate. When I was finished, he took his turn.

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