And that is why our marriage sucks…
Let’s be honest…most individuals (especially those 40 years old or younger) did not learn how to properly view, manage or preserve a marriage. Most people, myself included, grew up having to be accustomed to divorce and single parent households.
Like most, I was raised by my mother who labored day and night to do her best at raising a boy into a man. As a result…when it came to the topic of marriage, being a husband and loving my wife unconditionally…I was severely unprepared. That is not my mother’s fault…it is just the consequence of divorce and being raised without a proper model.
Let me further explain. As a mental health therapist, I have made a habit and a living off of studying human behavior so that I can help people more effectively. Of the many things that I have learned about human nature, one of the most noticeable traits that we so profoundly exemplify is our basic need to avoid pain and seek pleasure. We dislike being uncomfortable and whenever threatened, we automatically protect ourselves.
Now upon first thought, you may wonder how this relates to being raised without proper preparation for marriage. The parallel is simple. If I don’t have the proper information to produce consistent change in my behavior…I automatically fall back to doing what is natural and most comfortable for me. My marriage almost ended in divorce as a result, an almost sad tale that I have lived through as a child and a sad tale that most of my clients come to me with. I have also found that the “main issue” is never really the main issue. You may come to me for your husband cheating…but that is only a symptom of the true problem. This small point is so important to understand.
What do you think?
Before I dive deeper, let me ask you a question. What causes most marriages to end? Is it infidelity, money, falling out of love? Is it kids, wet towels on the bed…what about not having enough in common? Is it the in-laws, spending too much time with the “boys” or drug addictions? You got your answer…? If you think it is any of the aforementioned symptoms…unfortunately you are wrong. Let me introduce you to Dr. John Gottman.
Dr. John Gottman, director of Seattle University’s “Love Lab” and founder of the Gottman Institute, has studied thousands of couples for decades. By dissecting every nuance of their interactions from eye rolls to shrugs, he can predict with 94 percent accuracy whether a relationship will eventually dissolve. Four traits turned out to be the most reliable predictors of a breakup (especially when they’re combined in some fashion), so Gottman named them the “Four Horsemen.” I will call them the “Four Horsemen of Failed Relationships.” These four traits include: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Let’s spend some time exploring these.
Criticism involves attacking your partner’s personality or character by saying something like, “you never help with the dishes” or “why are you always so late?” Criticism is a global condemnation of a person’s character and it often leads to the second horseman; defensiveness. Dr. Gottman found that women are more likely to be critical in relationships. I have found that often in relationships, especially marriage…our partners are our looking glass. They reflect all of the good, the bad and the ugly that is already in you. At its deepest level, I often critique the very things in my wife that I don’t like in myself.
Defensiveness often involves rebuffing your partner’s complaint with one of your own, “I may be late, but you’re way too uptight about it.” Because we are pain avoiding creatures, we automically protect ourselves. When we perceive that someone else is attacking our self-perception, almost by default we feel compelled to defend it. Both defensiveness and criticism influence the third horseman; stonewalling.
Stonewalling involves clamming up and refusing to hash things out with your partner at all. Of course…this is the classic go to for men…as Dr. Gottman’s research has proven. For men, I have found that if we were not trained to explore our emotions, we often avoid them all together. As little boys, we are told not to cry and that boys have to be strong…as if expressing emotions were a sign of weakness. We avoid the pain and often shutdown as a way of coping with the problem. After all, who wants to truly admit that their dirty laundry smells…
This last horseman is special (in a bad way). If Dr. Gottman observed one or both partners in a relationship showing contempt towards the other, he considered it the single most important sign that the relationship was in trouble. Contempt involves putting your partner down (i.e., “you’re stupid for believing that, you are too fat, you are a (curse word). Contempt differs from criticism in that it is made from a superior plane. Contempt is any comment made from a higher level. It debases the other individual (now you see why racism is so damaging and divisive). Contempt is closely related to disgust, and what disgust and contempt are about is completely excluding someone from the community. Contempt also triggers past pain and trauma and can really lead to some ugly things being either said or done in the relationship.
Is there any hope?
I have found that in most of relationships (including my own), if those four traits are present, the condition of the relationship will be very rocky and cyclical. The truth of the matter is that we do all of these…that in and of itself is not the problem. It’s when these flaws run unchecked that they can drive a couple apart. To keep this from happening, all you need to do is learn some techniques to combat them. For example, if your spouse says, “You haven’t been helping much with the dishes,” don’t immediately retort back with, “Yes, but you haven’t been pitching in with the dog-walking much.” Instead, hear what your they have to say, and then acknowledge it. Replace negative generalizations (“you never make an effort with my family”) with constructive specifics (“It would mean a lot to me if we spent more time with my family over the summer”).
While couples tend to hone in on the prevalence of negative interactions to predict whether or not they’ll split, the prevalence of positive interactions is equally important. According to Gottman, the ratio of positive-to-negative interactions should be 20 to 1 during normal conversations — or 5 to 1 during an argument. That means that while you are arguing, you have the have the presence of mind to say 5 positive things for every 1 negative that you say. Likewise, when things are going well, you have to still be intentional and produce 20 positive exchanges for every 1 negative exchange. Yes…marriages, especially healthy marriages, take work.
Your primary role in your marriage is to give and to share. I never saw this played out as a little boy and instead learned that if I did not protect myself and defend myself, I would be taken advantage of or exploited. We are often told that this is a “dog-eat-dog” world and that “only the strong survive.” What a travesty it is to carry this world view into our marriages.
Also, I invite you to join our Mastering Marriage 7 Day Email Prayer Challenge by subscribing below. By doing so, you will have access to our email list where you will receive 7 specific prayers for you to pray over your marriage over the next 7 days plus tons of free resources and tools just like this article that can help enhance your marriage.