Welcome to February, the month of love! I’d like to start this month out by talking about four behaviors that can harm your marriage. These behaviors are explained and examined in depth in Dr. Gottman’s excellent book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. While these are not my original insights, I do want to add some quick litmus tests you can use to see if any of these four issues are present in your relationship.
I’d also like to add a cautionary note. My advice, as always, is for non-abusive relationships. If your marriage is a constant power struggle; if you fear physical harm from your partner; if you ever lie to protect your partner: please contact Interact or the National Domestic Violence hotline immediately. You may be in an abusive relationship. If you read my post here and discover that all four behaviors are present in your marriage, I encourage you to call Interact or the hotline as well, because these behaviors can lead to abuse.
The first horseman is criticism.
According to Dr. Gottman, criticism is “attacking someone’s personality or character – rather than a specific behavior – usually with blame.”
Criticism is not about unacceptable or incorrect action: it is about a person being wrong, bad, or inadequate. The first time your spouse washes your whites with your darks and you get all gray underwear, it’s still fairly easy to offer healthy feedback. “Please, remember to separate the whites from the rest of the clothes.” But the fifth or sixth time it happens, it’s much easier to say, “Why can’t you ever do the laundry right? I’ll just do it myself from now on!”
As we do this day in and day out we create a vicious cycle of criticism as communication, which is very destructive to our partnership.
Litmus test: Think before you speak in irritation. Will your words address the specific problem, or attack your spouse?
The second horseman is contempt.
Contempt is disrespect, scorn, dismissal, etc. So what’s the difference between contempt and criticism? Your intention. Criticism is generally motivated by frustration as well as the desire to improve your spouse. Contempt is motivated by the desire to hurt your spouse.
Criticism is the first step. Once you’ve given up on feedback and simply criticize, it’s an easy mental step to giving up on your spouse’s ability to do XYZ task correctly. That cynicism and resignation creates contempt.
Litmus test: Are you calling names, using sarcasm or hiding criticism with a joke?
The third horseman is defensiveness.
Defensiveness is warding off attacks both real or perceived. Wait, so if your spouse is coming at you with contempt or criticism, are you not supposed to defend yourself? Good question! When you are being attacked in any way, it is appropriate to stand your ground and defend yourself.
You can defend yourself by setting boundaries, enforcing consequences, and making requests. Being defensive in the sense Dr. Gottman is discussing is much more along the lines of acting like a 7th grader. This means lobbing accusations instead of answering questions, name calling, and sarcasm.
Litmus test: Are you more interested in defending your innocence than resolving the argument?
The fourth horseman is stonewalling.
Stonewalling is shutting down completely, especially during an emotionally charged moment. Interestingly, Dr. Gottman’s research shows that men are more prone to stonewall than women, a statistic that I’m sure some of you are nodding in agreement with. But there’s a reason why men shut down faster than women, and it’s a physical one.
Dr. Gottman talks about emotional flooding, which is when the argument activates a physical response in a person: increased heart rate, blood pressure, sweaty hands, etc. And men reach emotional flood points much more quickly than women. So while you may still be just warming up, your husband may be completely flooded with physical symptoms that are reducing his ability to think or engage.
If one partner is emotionally overwhelmed, the best way to handle it is to simply say, “I’m overwhelmed and upset. I need 5 minutes by myself to cool off.” If your partner says this to you, agree! Both of you will get a chance to cool off and evaluated the argument.
Litmus test: Do you tend to stop talking or simply walk away during very emotional moments? You may believe that you’re simply being neutral, or showing self-control, but unless you communicate your need for a break, you are stonewalling.
This post may seem like a downer, but the good news is that all of these behaviors are reversible. Once you become aware of the problems, you can fix them! I’d love to help you talk through any concerns you have, so feel free to contact me!