Research by Dr. John Gottman and others has helped us to understand the specific behaviours which are so deadly for marriages. He is able to predict with high degree of accuracy whether a couple will divorce, by the way they argue.* You’ll want to avoid these Seven Deadly Habits that characterise marriages headed for bust.
This is when the argument opens with an attack. It immediately puts the other on the defensive.
- Soft Start-up: “I’m worried about our relationship and I’d like to talk about it with you.”
- Harsh Start-up: “We need to talk about how you aren’t pulling your weight in this relationship.”
Criticism is different to a complaint. Complaints relate to a person’s actions, whereas a criticism involves a judgement about the other’s motives.
- Complaint: “I thought we had an agreement to check with each other before we commit to any engagements. I feel controlled when you don’t do that.”
- Criticism: “Why didn’t you check with me BEFORE you committed us to that engagement? You don’t care about what I want to do.”
Contempt is a more cynical extension of criticism, and often involves character assassination.
- Contempt: “You’re so manipulative and controlling. It’s a miracle you have any friends.”
Another common habit is to globalise the complaint beyond the specific incident. Whenever the words “always” or “never” are used, it’s a sure sign of globalisation. Stick to the incident at hand and avoid bringing up ancient history.
- Globalisation: “You always do this! I never get consulted. You’ve been doing this from the day we married. It’s always the same with you.”
While it’s understandable that a person would get defensive when they are being criticised or blamed, it is not a helpful reaction. The more defensive one is, the more persistent the accuser tends to become, which escalates the argument.
Stonewalling is refusing to interact. It may involve physically leaving the other (e.g. storming out, locking oneself in another room) or emotionally tuning out (e.g. watching TV, reading the paper). In 85% of marriages, the stonewaller is the husband. One reason for this trend is that a man’s body is more easily ‘flooded’.
Flooding is a stress reaction and includes physiological changes such as an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. Flooding can be triggered by confrontation or emotional discussions and causes intense emotion which is overwhelming and disorientating. This is one reason why women are more likely than their husbands to bring up sensitive issues and why the ‘Stop’ step in ‘Stop.Reflect.Connect’ is so powerful. When you’re flooded, ‘Stop’ allows you to regain self-control.
Rejecting repair attempts
Within any argument, often one or both will make some gesture of conciliation. It might be through humour, touch, eye contact or words. When this happens, if the other person doesn’t recognise and/or respond, the person waving the white flag feels rejected, adding fuel to the argument.
* John Gottman, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
A few years back, we got ourselves into a terrible rut. We were fighting all the time and feeling angry and disconnected. We found ourselves being over-reactive. One of us would make some innocent comment and the other would interpret it as an attack. Then the other would get upset because they had been misjudged. We felt hurt and disconnected from each other almost all the time. There wasn’t a lot of joy in our marriage – just a steady stream of sullen bitterness.
Some friends of ours helped us a lot by putting into place two simple strategies.
Firstly, they told us to do the Daily Appreciation regularly, at least 5 times a day. This helped us to focus on the good in each other, to build each other up. When we did this, we started to feel more positive towards each other, and we also learnt what was most effective in helping the other to feel loved.
Secondly, they taught us the ‘ouch’ rule. This was an agreement to immediately say ‘ouch’ whenever we were offended by something the other said. This gave the other person the chance to rephrase it or clarify what they meant. This was really helpful in making our communication clearer. We stopped jumping to negative conclusions about each other. It surprised us how often we were inclined to misunderstand each other. After a while, we learnt to assume that the other always had good intentions towards us. It really was the norm. Neither of us were being irritable and snappy or cold and withdrawn to punish the other. And if there was any doubt, we know now to seek clarification before drawing conclusions.