How Can I Make My Marriage Last? Part Three

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How Can I Make My Marriage Last? Part Three

Alright ladies and gents, it’s time for the third installment in our current series “How Can I Make My Marriage Last?” We previously discussed John Gottman’s 5:1 ratio in PART ONE, and then addressed some marriage killers affectionately known as the Four Horsemen in PART TWO. Obviously we couldn’t leave you hanging without the antidotes to the Four Horsemen, so that will be today’s objective. If you read part two and realized that you’re a horse-rider, never fear! The following are John Gottman’s four antidotes to get you off that horse (or horses… yes, it’s possible to ride more than one. Crazy mental image, right?) without crashing to the ground.
But first a word about marriage. It may seem obvious, but when two people are happily married they usually like each other. Mind blowing I know, but stick with me here. There are all sorts of reasons people get married, but I’ve never heard anyone say it was because they hated each other. So how do couples go from loving caresses, pet names, and inside jokes to yelling matches, throwing things, and stony silence?
It happens gradually.
Marriages usually die one small piece at a time rather than in one big implosion. Big implosions do happen, but most of the time there have been little cracks in the foundation along the way. These cracks may not seem significant at the time, so they are often ignored until the whole thing starts ripping apart at the seams. It’s like a runaway train that’s slowly picking up steam. It rolls along fine for a while, but eventually sparks start flying and bolts come ripping off, and before you know it you’re in full-blown crisis mode.
The Four Horsemen are indicator lights that your train is headed for disaster. Don’t ignore the indicator lights! Let them be a signal to slow down and use the antidote.
We all have certain concerns or complaints that need to be addressed with our partners. After all, sometimes they drive too fast, take too long, or seem out-of-touch with us. When our communication gets sloppy, however, we sometimes find ourselves being Critical Calvins. This is when we need to focus on making a complaint without blame.
When you decide to tell your partner about your concern, a gentle start-up involves phrasing your complaint with an “I-statement” about your own feelings or experience rather than making an accusatory “you-statement” about your partner. For example, “I’m scared! I know you really want to get there, but would you mind slowing down?” Instead of, “You’re a horrible driver! Slow down before you get us killed!” Do you hear the difference? One expresses your positive need, and the other expresses judgement. Both might get your partner to slow down, but only one does so without damaging your relationship. Remember, it may not seem like a big deal but interactions like these tend to have a cumulative effect. And by the way, it’s more than just the words you use. Even I-statements can be used with a judgmental tone! Be careful not to use the same words, but with an aggressive attitude that communicates “You’d better slow down, or I’ll take your head off!”
Simply put, respect is something that everyone deserves; you don’t have to earn it. If you don’t believe your partner is worthy of honor and respect, then there is not much of a foundation for any sort of rewarding relationship. When we start acting this way we have become a big part of the problem.
Very often our contempt comes from feeling so hurt that we have begun to see our partner as “against me” rather than “a person who loves me who has also hurt me.” As a result, we treat them like the enemy rather than like a partner. We call names. We ridicule. We use sarcasm and roll our eyes. It can be very tempting to slip into this hurtful type of communication style when we have felt hurt ourselves. Remember, though, that returning hurt for hurt only perpetuates the problem. If you’re riding that high horse of contempt, it is critical that you focus on broadening your view of your partner. Begin rebuilding (or maybe just remembering) fondness and admiration for your spouse again. Remind yourself of their positive qualities–the things that originally made you friends–even as you struggle with each other’s flaws. Keeping this big-picture view of your spouse will help you resist the urge to launch into a tirade the next time they do that one thing that you just can’t stand.
Relationships are two-way streets. Accepting responsibility for your part of the conflict can be a very difficult thing to do, especially when you’re feeling attacked. After all, it’s instinctual to put up your guard when something seems like a threat. If you practice taking responsibility, however, doing so can diffuse the tension very quickly. It communicates that you understand your partner’s concern and believe it is important.
OK, so I’m just supposed to accept responsibility for my part of the conflict? What about all that name calling my partner is doing? Isn’t that a bigger deal?
That is a big deal, and it should be addressed. But that doesn’t mean that taking a defensive posture is going to help. Getting defensive only takes the finger and points it back at your partner. Instead, try to understand why this particular thing is bothering them and see if you can put it into your own words for them. This lets your partner know that you’re listening, and that you are willing to work through this issue with them.
But what if they just keep attacking me? What am I supposed to do then?
You’ll find that taking responsibility for your part of the problem will often lead to a softening in your partner. There are times, however, that one or both of you are simply too worked-up to have a fruitful conversation in that moment. In instances like this, it is best to take at least a 20
minute time-out in order to cool your jets. Then you can return to the conversation with more openness than you had before.
Have you ever reached that point in an argument when you’re just too overwhelmed and can’t keep a level perspective anymore? Psychology types call this experience “emotional flooding.” Your sympathetic nervous system physically responds to emotional tension by getting you geared up for battle. Your heart rate rises, your palms sweat, and your adrenaline pumps. There comes a moment when it is literally physically impossible to stay level-headed. In that moment, it is tempting to say “whatever” and hang up the phone, storm away, or go stone cold silent. Maybe you even take all the blame just to stop the argument. Though it can be tempting, don’t take the bait! Tell your partner that you’re emotionally flooded and that you need to take a time out. You may even want to let them know that you’d like to return to the discussion once you’ve had a chance to calm down. During the break, you should do something that physically calms you down, such as taking a walk or doing deep breathing exercises. Actively avoid thinking negative thoughts about your partner during the time-out, and focus on getting yourself back to an open space internally. Only then will you be able to return and have a fruitful discussion.
So now that you’ve learned the four antidotes, you guys are ready to be relationship masters, right? Stay tuned until next time when we’ll discuss how to speak your partner’s love language. Same bat time, same bat channel!
–From Matt Thames