You know what they say the definition of insanity is? Doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result. Do you feel like you and your spouse have the same fight over and over again hoping for a different outcome? Ask nine out of 10 couples, and I’d bet that if you ask them about their last fight, it would not be a completely original one.
So, maybe you can’t completely avoid some of these recurring marital arguments, and maybe that’s OK. Knowing that they exist and being prepared for them is half the battle. And when the issues resurface, maybe there’s a way to negotiate and diffuse the situation to make life less stressful.
I recently picked up a favorite book of mine, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, by Dr. John Gottman and was reminded of his amazing findings that 69 percent of relationship issues are perpetual and will never be completely resolved. He says that it is unnecessary to have every problem in a relationship solved. A better goal would be able to manage the issues in order to create a healthy marriage and avoid explosive arguments and resentfulness in favor of more effective communication.
Gottman’s research gives him the ability to actually predict how long couples will stay together based on observing them for just a few minutes. For instance, he discovered that excessive anger and emotional withdrawal can lead to divorce in about 16.2 years on average.
Worse, couples that use what he calls the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” or four distinct conflict behaviors, almost always lead to divorce in about 5.6 years on average. No couple hopes for either of these scenarios when they first get married, so what are these fearsome four horsemen of negative marital behavior and how can we avoid them?
The four horsemen behaviors that Dr. Gottman identified are:
Criticism: Accusing or assaulting your spouse’s personality or disposition (e.g. “You cannot even take out the garbage? You’re so lazy!”)
Contempt: Speaking to your spouse in a condescending or degrading manner by devaluing him or by displaying negative body language such as eye rolling (e.g. “I would never do something so dumb! What’s wrong with you?”)
Defensiveness: Protecting oneself by acting like a victim during a perceived attack. (e.g. “I would never have overreacted like that if you had not started the fight in the first place.”)
Stonewalling: Withdrawing from the confrontation or shutting down emotionally (e.g. After a husband berates his wife, she leaves the room and calls a friend to talk instead of further discussing the issue with him.)
In order to steer clear of the four horsemen, Dr. Gottman says that couples must become more aware of how they initiate conversations with their spouse. Most arguments start because of some emotional triggers usually involving something important to you that your partner did or did not do or he somehow feels misunderstood, diminished or invalidated.
When approaching an argument by using one of the four horsemen, your partner will normally respond negatively by focusing on the horseman instead of the actual issue. Retaliation will be striking back or defending himself rather than actually listen to what is bothering you.
Instead, try a gentler approach using the three-step process below:
I feel … (name the emotion)
Here is how it seemed to me… (explain the scenario that led up to this feeling, rather than describing your spouse’s faults)
I need… (describe how your spouse can make you feel better about the issue or rectify it)
Using the above as starting points to your arguments sets the stage for discussing issues calmly rather than getting defensive, judgmental or retreating. This allows negotiation and compromise to take place. The main goal is to prevent interactions with your spouse that are hurtful and hostile. Instead, try to create positive engagements without judgement. Strive to empathize with your spouse’s emotions and support him in any way you can.
In the end, always remind yourself that you both love each other and care about each other’s happiness. You are on the same team! These are the reasons you got married in the first place!