Want to Stay Happily Married?

Do you remember the last fight you had with your partner?  Do you remember what the fight was about?  Most likely, you don’t remember what you and your partner fought about, or it was so ridiculous you’d rather not tell me.  I remember fighting with my husband about buying the wrong type of bread (the fight was really about not feeling heard).  Throughout my 31-year marriage, I can recall several silly fights that ended in hurt feelings and no solutions.  Fights in marriage aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but what if I told you that 95% of failed marriages have something in common… it’s the way they fight, not how often they fight.

Dr. John Gottman, the world’s leading marriage researcher, has spent 40 years researching couples.  Gottman states that he can predict with great precision whether a couple will stay happily married or divorce after watching and listening to them interact for just fifteen minutes 

So, what do interactions between couples in a failed relationship have in common? 

·      Criticism

·      Contempt

·      Defensiveness

·      Stonewalling


Criticism in a relationship

Criticism is not making a complaint.  A complaint focuses on a specific behavior (“I’m upset that you didn’t take the trash out last night.”), while criticism attacks the character of the person (“You never do anything right.”).  The problem with criticism is that it doesn’t leave room for conversation; rather, it is a direct attack and usually leads to defensiveness, stonewalling, or contempt. 

The antidote for criticism is to use a softer start-up and complain without blame.  For example, “I see the dishes aren’t done, was your day busier than usual?”   Using statements that talk about your feelings and express what you need tend to help.

Contempt: deadly to a relationship

Gottman has found that when “contempt” is present, it is one of the strongest predictors of divorce.  Contempt arises from a sense of superiority over one’s partner; it attacks your partner’s sense of self with the intention to cause harm.  Insults (“you’re an idiot”), name-calling, sarcasm, body language (rolling your eyes) and tone of voice are all examples of contempt.   

The best way to combat contempt is to build a culture of appreciation and respect.

·      Contempt: “You’re an idiot.”

·      Antidote: “I’m proud of the way you handled that teacher conference.” 

Defensiveness, to ward off attack

Imagine your partner says, “Why didn’t you take out the trash like you said you would!!”  Most people would react with, “Do you know what I do all day!  What have you done?”  Defensive statements escalate the level of the interaction and lead to a fight.

Defensiveness is self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.  Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner when you’ve been criticized or attacked – “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” 

The best way to diffuse your defensiveness is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.

Stonewalling… tuning out

Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction as a way to avoid conflict.  Partners may think they are trying to be “neutral,” but stonewalling conveys disapproval, disconnection, and/or smugness:

·      Stony silence

·      Monosyllabic mutterings

·      Changing the subject

·      Removing yourself physically

·      Silent treatment

Learning ways to sooth your emotions is the first step to combat defensiveness.  Taking a 20-minute break and seeking relaxation from the fight allows couples to reengage and calmly work through the issues. 

Fighting is normal in relationships, but effective couples that stay together seek to avoid the four areas of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. They seek to find a productive way to learn from the fight and improve to build a strong, long-term relationship.

I would love to work with you and your partner to strengthen your relationship by using Dr. Gottman’s method for counseling couples.  Feel free to go to the Meet our Team and get to know me and the other Gottman trained counselors at NSFC.  If you are ready to get started, please call 985-661-0560 to schedule a Consultation with one of our counselors.

Ilsa Araki