How to Make It Work

This May my wife and I will be celebrating our 27th anniversary. I’d like to say that our marriage has lasted because I am such an expert on interpersonal relationships, but the sad truth is that it’s a whole lot easier to help others than to deal with my own family problems. So I’d have to say that the main reasons that we are still together are: 1) we promised, 2) we can’t keep our hands off of each other, 3) we like each other, and 4) we forgive each other a lot. In short, after all this time, we’re still good friends (and we can’t keep our hands off each other). It’s the good friends part that my wife highlighted when our son left home. As he went out the door, she said to me, “You know, it’s a good thing that I still like you.” That’s important especially after the children, if you have them, are no longer a going concern (the son has since moved back home, but I’m still glad that she likes me). As John Gottman says, “Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship.”(1)

John Gottman is perhaps one of the world’s leading researchers on healthy relationships. He offers some warning signs that your marriage or long-term relationship may be in trouble, and several principles for making your marriage work.

The first warning sign is harsh startup. If you begin a discussion with your partner with sarcasm or criticism, you’re heading for trouble. Say something nice instead.

The second warning sign is actually a collection of four that he calls “the four horsemen” (yes, warning you that an apocalypse is coming): criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling

Criticism is attacking your partner’s personality. Complaints are fair game. If you have an issue with your partner, talk about it. But keep to the issue and don’t make it a global attack. “You were late coming home and we missed the movie”:  fair game. “You’re always late, you don’t care about me:” not helpful.

Contempt is the emotion that goes with rolling your eyes or wrinkling your nose: it literally means “bad smell”. It’s what you do to protect yourself from bad food. If you’re treating your partner this way, well, enough said. 

Defensiveness is when your partner complains and you protect yourself instead of addressing the complaint. “You were late coming home and we missed the movie,” she complains. “It wasn’t my fault,” you say. Or, “Yeah? Well you were late the night before…” Wrong answers. Better answer: “I’m sorry.”

Stonewalling occurs when you “tune out” your partner, perhaps because you’ve been hearing too much criticism, contempt, or defensiveness. Sure you’re protecting yourself by ignoring your partner. Understandable. But how’s that working for your connection? Not so good. When I hear couples tell me that they have “grown apart”, I’m thinking that they’ve probably been stonewalling each other for a long time.

Too much of the four horseman can lead to flooding, where you’re just feeling overwhelmingly threatened by your partner and unable to focus on what’s wrong in the relationship. You shut down and back away. This is stonewalling on steroids. Not so good for connection.

Finally your body signs may be signalling an impending divorce. Fighting with your partner is physiologically distressing. Your heart rate goes up, adrenaline gets released in your bloodstream, and you gear up for “flight or fight”. When you feel physically threatened by your partner, you can’t solve problems, let alone stay connected. That said, all couples fight. Repair. Don’t fight all the time. Apologize. Forgive.

Healthy couples don’t fight a lot differently from unhealthy couples. But healthy couples repair their relationship after each fight.

Now, what works?

Rule 1: have and rub each other’s backs. Gottman calls this “enhancing your love maps”. I love that my partner knows who I am, the good and the bad, the strong and the weak, and that she protects me. I try to do the same for her. This means that we talk a lot, share each other’s stories with each other, and are discrete about what we share outside of our relationship (of course, I put it all in my blog…). And we touch each other a lot.

Rule 2: nurture your fondness and admiration. My wife is an amazing person, personally and professionally. When others tell me how wonderful she is, I agree. A side benefit of this is what they call the idealizing transference: if she’s such a great person, and she’s married to me, then I must be pretty good myself.

Rule 3: turn toward each other instead of away. Sure I have friends outside of my marriage but there are some things that I only get at home, and frequently my wife gets the right of first refusal.

Rule 4: let your partner influence you. It is not a sign of weakness to do what your wife tells you. In most marriages, women are more sensitive to the issues that need fixing and most likely to bring up the issue. Listening to your partner is like having an extra radar, or an early warning system. Don’t ignore her or pretend that you are “stronger” when you make your own decisions unilaterally.

Rule 5: solve your solvable problems. Not all problems in a relationship can be solved. Figure out which ones can and work them out. Figure out which ones can’t and accept them. 

Rule 6: overcome gridlock. See his book for ideas on this.

Rule 7: create shared meaning. What is the story of the two of you? For my wife and me it’s a complex myth of healing, spirituality and family: we’re both healers, and both dedicated professionally to making the world a better place, and personally dedicated to supporting our children to being the best people they can be. It’s a combined story of love and work that works for us and gets us out of bed in the morning (and frequently keeps us up till all hours of the night). What’s your story? Make it meaningful. And give it a happy ending.

(1) John M. Gottman and Nan Silver (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert (New York: Three Rivers Press), p. 19.

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