Have you ever had a huge fight with your spouse, but then realize you have no idea what started the argument? Are you sick and tired of exploding into anger and insults in conversations with your partner? Maybe you walk away from discussions with a sinking feeling that something in your marriage isn’t working. Or instead of arguing, you notice yourself or your spouse muttering passive-aggressive comments, and your mutual respect and understanding is slowly slipping away.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the four communication habits that destroy marriages, as researched by John Gottman. Luckily, Gottman has found an antidote to each of these behaviors that can help you to reverse your downward spiral into these four destructive habits. Let’s take a look.
Instead of criticism? Use gentle start-up.
Remember how Gottman can watch 10 minutes of a couple’s conversation and predict with surprising accuracy if that couple will divorce? In the first three minutes of every conflict conversation, certain indicators will predict how the rest of the conversation will go.
You’ve likely seen this in your own relationship. If you bring up a topic with your partner that begins with an accusatory “you,” your partner immediately goes on the defensive.
Instead, state your personal feelings, reactions, and needs. The magic formula for authentic communication is founded upon naming a personal emotion you’re experiencing, expressing what you saw or heard that led to that emotion, and naming a positive need. By expressing yourself in this way, you allow your partner to see the effect his or her actions have on you, but you also provide a solution.
Destructive tactic: “You never follow-through with what you say you’re going to do, I can’t count on you for anything.”
Antidote: “I feel ignored and hurt when I ask you to help me out with a task, but it doesn’t get done. I need to know what timeline you have for completing that task. Can we create a schedule?”
Instead of contempt? Practice fondness and appreciation.
Contempt takes criticism a step further and is born out of a place of seeing your partner as less than, or looking down on them. One way to diagnose contempt in your relationship by asking if your partner ever feels “small” or like a child when you criticize them.
If you notice contempt is an issue for you, seek to remember the things you love about your partner and what attracted you to them in the beginning of the relationship. Notice their strengths and abilities, particularly in areas where you aren’t as strong. Pay attention to their contributions to your relationship or your family.
Valuing your spouse by building up your fondness and admiration system leads to a more solid foundation of friendship and respect in your marriage. In general, practicing gratitude and seeking to accept your present circumstances with contentment can have a multitude of benefits for your mental and relational health.
Destructive tactic: “Only an idiot would forget about our daughter’s soccer game.”
Antidote: “I can see why this slipped through the cracks. You’ve been working long hours for your promotion at work. I’m thankful that you’re hard-working and dedicated to providing for our family.”
Instead of defensiveness? Try taking responsibility.
When you’re feeling criticized or your spouse is pointing out your weaknesses, it can feel self-protective to fight back and point out their not-so-great qualities. Our natural bent is toward defensiveness, especially if we’re feeling guilt or shame about our behaviors.
In reality, none of us are perfect. We all make mistakes from time to time, lose patience with our loved ones, or forget to do something we’re asked to do. Before immediately reacting to your partner’s feedback and expression of needs, slow down and pay attention to what’s going on emotionally and in your body. If you’re noticing feelings of guilt or shame, think through any weaknesses or faults you may be struggling to admit.
In some cases, your partner may have been triggered by something you did or said that you didn’t realize would affect them so strongly. When you didn’t intend to hurt them, it can be helpful to acknowledge the trigger and what made it difficult for your partner and ask, “How can I support you better the next time something like this comes up?”
Destructive tactic: “You would go out gambling too if your life was anywhere near as stressful as mine is.”
Antidote: “You’re right. I should have cleared it with you first before I spent our money at the casino. How can we work together to approach this differently in the future?”
Instead of stonewalling? Practice self-soothing.
Stonewalling is usually accompanied by an experience Gottman calls “flooding,” which is a state of physiological arousal, the commonly known “fight-or-flight” response, where the brain is unable to process additional information. Responding to flooding by calming your body’s natural response allows you to re-enter the conversation with greater presence of mind and ability to listen and respond to what is being shared.
There are a few different ways to respond to stonewalling. Self-soothing exercises, such as mindfulness breathing exercises, are designed to help you focus on the present moment and sensations in your body. The rhythm of deep breathing calms your sympathetic nervous system that has you in fight-or-flight mode, instead telling your body that you are safe.
Another strategy is to give yourself a break of at least 20 minutes from the conversation. During this time, do whatever it takes to take your mind off of the argument. Ruminating about what was said and what you wish you would have said only continues the state of flooding. After this 20-minute break, come back together for another try at the discussion.
Destructive tactic: Zoning out, checking out of the conversation, or not listening.
Antidote: “I’m feeling flooded right now, and I’m having a hard time being able to listen well because of it. Can we take a 20-minute break to cool off and then come back to finish talking?”
My hope is that, as you begin to use these antidotes, you’ll be able to experience greater connection and more productive experiences of conflict management with your partner.
Have you and your partner hit a rut in your communication where every conversation ends in a fight? Have you become so accustomed to using destructive strategies that you aren’t even sure what the antidotes would look like in your life? At Restored Hope, I use Gottman Method Couples Therapy to help couples achieve greater connection and intimacy, solid strategies for effective communication, and overall satisfaction with their marriages. I offer couples counseling at my Ann Arbor location. Give me a call today at 734.656.8191 or fill out my form here to talk with me today.