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Four Surefire Ways to Destroy Your Marriage

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I’ll take a guess that you didn’t marry your spouse hoping that one day you’d be signing divorce papers.  You likely didn’t start your relationship anticipating that you would argue nonstop.  But it is true that over time, couples tend to slip into unhelpful patterns of relating that create distance and conflict.

John Gottman is a researcher on healthy marriages who claims that by watching a couple interact with one another for 10 minutes, he can predict with over 90% accuracy whether they will divorce or remain married.  How does he achieve this kind of wizardry?

Gottman has identified different communication patterns that are consistent in relationships headed toward divorce.  When he sees these patterns, coined as the Four Horsemen, he knows this relationship is headed downhill if changes aren’t made.

Learn more about these Four Horsemen in this video:

Let's look in more depth at each type of communication.

Criticism

Criticism is the first of what I would call the “offensive strategies.”  Instead of directly communicating a concern or complaint, criticism takes the form of a negative comment on your partner’s behavior that implies that they are flawed or stupid.  These statements start with an accusation, indicated by the word “you”.  Criticism is usually the first Horsemen that pops up in a marriage.  If it is left unchecked, using this style will likely lead the other Horsemen to develop.

Example: “You’re so inconsiderate.  You always wait until the last minute to take out the trash.  If you actually cared about how stressed I am, you’d do it sooner.”

Contempt

As the second offensive strategy, contempt twists criticism into a more destructive pattern.  Contempt is criticism coming from a place of superiority or judgment.  It involves attacking your spouse's character in a pointed and sarcastic manner.  It can include name-calling, cynicism, and mocking your partner.  If you've ever rolled your eyes and scoffed at your partner's choices, you likely know what contempt feels like.  Gottman identifies contempt as the strongest predictor of divorce.

Example: “You’re so stupid and lazy.  Don’t complain to me about having to take out the trash, like it’s so hard.  You’re such an idiot.”

Defensiveness

Defensiveness, as can be expected from its name, is the first of the “defensive strategies.”  It involves making excuses to justify yourself in response to a perceived attack from your spouse. Usually you notice feeling self-righteous in response to criticism or seeing yourself as the victim.  Defensiveness often comes after an insult to your pride and is an attempt to short-circuit taking responsibility.  Often, it turns the tables and places the blame back on your partner.

Example: “You think I’m inconsiderate for not taking out the trash?  Why would I try to be considerate when you leave the dirty dishes in the sink all day and can’t be bothered to clean them?”

Stonewalling

This defensive strategy is an invisible killer.  It’s the most difficult of the Four Horsemen to notice because it is quiet and contained.  Stonewalling is characterized by checking out mentally or emotionally, withdrawing from the conversation, not responding to requests or communication, or simply walking away.  I imagine it like a garage door closing over your attention: nothing is allowed in, and nothing can slip out.  When stonewalling, you can feel flooded, with adrenaline coursing through you a rush.  You can feel like your blood is boiling and your mind is racing, and you can't process any more information from your spouse. You might stonewall in order to avoid lashing out in anger.

Example: "I don't want to talk about this anymore."

At this point, you may see yourself in one (or many!) of these styles of communication.  But don't lose hope!  Recognizing these destructive relationship patterns is the first step toward change.

Pay attention to conversations with your spouse, coworkers, or friends.  While it may be easier to point out how everyone around you is using the Four Horsemen, instead notice which of these styles of communication are your default response when you’re disagreeing with someone.

This article was originally posted on July 20, 2017.

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Have you noticed these communication patterns crop up in your arguments with your spouse or partner?  Are you feeling exhausted and hopeless about being able to change how you talk to your spouse?  Are your arguments creating anxiety and stress in your day-to-day life?  At Restored Hope, I want to support your desire to create a healthy and fulfilling marriage.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with me about how you can stop the cycle of destructive communication in your marriage and feel connected once again.

3 Steps to Argue Your Way to a Stronger Relationship

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Do you often find yourself in the same argument over and over again with your significant other?  Are there certain topics you can’t seem to agree on, no matter how often you talk about them?  Maybe you truly love your spouse and want what’s best for them, but you can’t seem to see eye-to-eye on finances, parenting, or household responsibilities. 

You are not alone.  Every couple faces these types of conflicts.  But there’s some good news: these conflicts are the greatest opportunities you have for increasing intimacy and connection in your relationship.

John Gottman, a marriage researcher who has been studying what makes marriages healthy for over 40 years, has termed this type of conflict “gridlocked.”  He defines gridlock as conflict that doesn’t have a clear-cut solution.  And surprisingly enough, he has found through his research that 69% of all conflicts are gridlocked.  That means over two-thirds of all conflict doesn’t have a right or wrong solution!

But that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause.  Rather, these conflicts you experience in your relationship can be approached with a heart of compromise and understanding in order to pave the way for more closeness in relationship.

Where do these arguments go wrong?

When you’re in gridlocked conflict, you may find yourself trying to convince your significant other that you are right and they are wrong.  You may not be wiling to see their perspective because you’ve already dug in your heels on your point-of-view.

On the flip side, you might develop bitterness and resentment from avoiding conversations about these tense topics, which spills out into other areas.  Have you ever had difficulty remembering what started your fight?  Little annoyances are magnified by the underlying tension and anger from gridlocked conflict.

What needs to change?

Altering your approach to conflict requires you to reframe the argument as an opportunity to grow in intimacy with your partner.  There are reasons why you feel stuck in these areas.  Often it is because of your own and your partner’s desires and the narratives tied to them. These make it difficult for you to change your position.  The purpose of the next exercise is to understand you partner’s story so that you can see why their position is so important to them. 

This does require some level of vulnerability on the part of each of you in order to grow in intimacy.  If you struggle with vulnerability with your partner, try this exercise out with a smaller gridlocked issue first..

Gottman’s 3-Step Process

Step 1: Discuss (and listen) to each of your perspectives.

Set aside a time for each of you to talk about your personal perspective on the issue.  Use the talking formula: “I feel…because/about…and what I would like is…”  Speak in a respectful and non-critical tone to your partner, believing that they want to hear your side.

The most crucial component of this exercise, however, is playing the role of the listener.  Often we listen with one ear, but our mind is focused on our response and how we might defend ourselves.  When we do this, we’re not truly listening to the other person.  Instead, Gottman encourages you to “suspend persuasion” for a time and seek to understand your partner’s perspective, as if you were an outside observer.  Validate what you hear in your partner’s perspective.  What feelings make sense to you?  Can you understand from their perspective, even if you don’t fully agree? 

Example: In talking about housework, you might say, “I felt abandoned when I asked you to help me clean the garage and you said “no.”  I need to feel like we share responsibility and are working together to keep our home organized.”

Step 2: Identify the “dreams within conflict.”

Look deeper at why the issue is so important to you personally.  Exploring your own triggers is a self-reflective tool that helps you identify your own personal narrative contributing to the issue.

Typically, this narrative has to do with your past.  Describing why you are uniquely triggered helps your partner feel empathy.  As you discuss this narrative, ask open-ended questions like “tell me the story behind that” or “what experience from your past makes this so important to you?” to understand more of your partner’s perspective.

Similar to Step 1, it is essential to listen and understand your partner’s perspective.  Do you see why they might make the connection between the present issue and a past experience?  Does it make sense why they are having a strong emotional reaction? 

Example: “I’m reminded of the importance of my value of equality.  My father made sure that my mother felt as though they carried an equal weight in taking care of the house, and I saw that as a way they loved each other.  When you don’t help me out, I wonder if you don’t see us as equals, and then I feel unloved.” 

Step 3: Choose areas of compromise.

Once you’ve listened to one another’s perspective, asked questions, and helped each other feel fully understood, then you can move into a place of compromise.  Understanding and empathizing with your spouse’s story makes compromise vastly easier.  Where you might have been stubborn before, now that you know their story, you may be more willing to move closer to what they desire.

Make a list of essentials about this area: what do you need?  Then make a list of more flexible items where might you be willing to compromise.  Discuss your lists together and seek overlap.  Where might each of you make some compromise to move closer to your partner’s needs?  How can you practically put this into play this upcoming week? 

Example: “It is essential to me that, in general, you help out with tasks around the house.  I am willing to be flexible about what those tasks are.  If organizing the garage is not your cup of tea, I would feel supported and equal to you if you prepared dinner so I could focus on getting the garage done today.  Are you willing to consider that?”

Know this:  even in using these three steps, you will likely still argue.  Perhaps the compromise will work for a time, but eventually a new trigger will come up that needs to be discussed.  Remember: this is normal!  You will be discussing compromises and seeking to support one another throughout your relationship.  If you look at this as an ongoing conversation that will get easier over time, you’ll be set up well to continue to love one another through compromise in the course of your relationship.

Are you having a hard time finding common ground in your relationship?  Do you constantly feel stuck in your arguments?  At Restored Hope, I offer supportive couples counseling that helps you learn to communicate your dreams and listen with empathy to your significant other.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor office.

Four Tips to Stop Arguments Before They Start: Travel Edition

Summer vacation season is here!.  Maybe you have a road trip, cruise, or flight to an exotic locale planned.  Vacations involve a break in the routine, high stress of deadlines and flight times, and all that extended time spent with our loved ones: a perfect recipe to set us on edge.  It can be easy to use harsh words to those around us, feel anger or frustration at not being heard, or end the trip wishing we hadn't come.

I know this from personal experience: when you’re in the middle of a fight on a vacation, it's difficult to snap back into a relaxed, vacation-ready mood.  What are the things we can do that will help us to snap back into that mindset?

Preparing for a trip in a way that prevents arguments before they even start can help you avoid these travel-related spats with your loved ones.

John Gottman, an expert on healthy couples, suggests that we can learn from past arguments in order to prevent those same fights from happening in the future.  Gottman focuses on the way we argue: how our tone of voice, personal triggers, and ways of responding when feeling threatened can take over.

Instead of finding yourself in reactionary mode during your entire vacation, take a few ideas from the list below before you leave for your trip to practice a more preventative approach.

Reflect on arguments you’ve had on vacation before and look for any trigger events.

How many times have you thought back on an argument and forgotten what started it?  It could’ve been about something as trivial as which fast food restaurant to stop at for lunch or which route to take.  But before you know it, it’s blown up into a huge dispute that highlights your insecurities or fires up anger in you.

Your strong emotional reaction in these situations may be linked to something deeper than the relatively minor event that started the fight.  It serves as a red flag of a trigger: an event that reminds you of something from your past or present to which you are particularly sensitive.  It could be that your spouse raising her voice reminds you of when your father used to yell at you and your siblings on family camping trips.  This memory can lead to feelings of fear or anger.  Perhaps your friend’s sharp words about your driving remind you of your own insecurities around your skill as a driver.  This trigger could be driven by shame or self-protection.

What are some common triggers for you?  Take some time to reflect back on past arguments you’ve had on vacations and how you felt in the midst of them.  When did something similar happen on a past vacation with family or friends?  Did you notice any shame or insecurity coming up that you felt you had to defend?  What stories in your life explain why you might be sensitive to certain issues?

Have a conversation with your travel partner about past arguments you’ve had on trips. 

Once you’ve explored your triggers in travel situations, you can more clearly communicate them to others.   Before you leave for the trip you’re going on, answer these prompts based on Gottman’s Aftermath of a Fight intervention with your travel buddy.

  1. “When we argued last trip, I felt…” – List the emotions you felt.

  2. “In my experience, what happened was…” – Imagine you’re watching a movie of the event from your point of view. What happened?

  3. “This was particularly hard for me because of…” – Explain the trigger: the past event or the experience of shame that led to your response and why you were particularly sensitive to it.

  4. “The part I played in this was…” – Name something you can take responsibility for: maybe you responded with anger and defensiveness, or you shut down emotionally.

  5. “Next time, what I can do….and what I need is…” – Identify a change you’d like to make the next time you disagree, as well as a change you’d like to ask of your partner.

While practicing this exercise, use the authentic communication formula and responses in order for both of you to feel heard and understood.  Remember – the goal isn’t to get back into arguing: it’s to understand what can set each of you off so you can know to avoid those trigger points on future trips.

Have an open conversation about expectations for the trip and come to a compromise.

We each bring our personal expectations into vacations.  For example, a husband might see the trip as a way to relax and check out of his daily life.  But his wife might look at it as an adventure and pack in as much fun and activity as she can.  Imagine this couple vacationing without having discussed their expectations first, and you can guess what might happen.

To fend off this potential disaster, talk with your loved ones about your hopes or expectations for this vacation.  Be open to compromise.  For the couple above, they could plan two day-long excursions in their vacation locale throughout the week, while reserving one day for relaxing on the beach.  You may not have the ideal vacation you had desired, but you can create a plan that cuts back on conflict and caters to everyone's ideas of fun.

Accept the fact that you will fight – and make a plan to recover and bring yourself back to fun!

Even if you understand what triggers your travel buddy and you do all the prevention you can, in reality you may still fight while you are on the trip.  Travel is high stress – there’s no getting around it. 

Instead of being surprised by fights, make a plan now for how to recover from those arguments.  You can use the above conversation prompts on the trip if needed, but it can also be helpful to remind yourself of the ways you have fun together.  Make a joke with your spouse.   Play a game with your friends in the car or on your iPhones (a friend and I tried the Heads Up! App on a trip and it was a game-changer for waiting in lines).  Create a music playlist with your family and have 30-second dance parties.

What can you plan to start now to prevent arguments on your vacations this summer?

At Restored Hope, I know that relationships are tricky, and clear communication can be the trickiest.  As you prepare for your vacations this summer, you might find that none of the ideas listed above seem probable.  You could be struggling to understand how you get triggered in these arguments.  Or  it's possible the conflict with your spouse is so tense that having a civil conversation about expectations feels like it will end in an explosion.  If these stories ring true, I’d love to help.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based counseling office where I use principles from Gottman Method Couples Therapy to help foster authentic and loving relationships, romantic or otherwise.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with me today.