Learning how to foster a fulfilling relationship is important whether you are married or single. The information I am going to share can be applied to any relationship: marriage, dating, cohabitating, friendship, siblings, parent-child, or a work relationship.
Dr. John Gottman’s 50 years of psychological research pinpoints healthy and unhealthy behaviors in marriage. Before I tell you more about this, let’s look at the indicators of a distressed marriage.
The 4 final stages of the death of a marriage
1. You see your marital problems as severe.
2. Talking things over seems useless. You try to solve problems on your own without talking with your partner.
3. You start leading parallel lives.
4. Loneliness sets in.
The good news is that most relationships can recover. It starts with the steps below.
The five behaviors below predict divorce with 94% accuracy if an effective repair is not made. On the rare occasions when Masters of Marriage use these five behaviors, they make an effective repair so that both people open their hearts again.
Let’s dive in and learn the basics.
Don’t do these five things:
1) Harsh Start-up. A conversation that starts harshly usually ends harshly.
4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Dr. John Gottman
a. Attacking your partner’s personality or character, usually with the intent of making someone right and someone wrong.
b. Examples: Generalizations: “you always…” “you never…” you’re the type of person who …” “why are you so …”
a. Attacking your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse him or her.
b. Insults and name calling: “wimp, fat, stupid, ugly, slob, lazy and worse …”
c. Hostile humor, sarcasm, or mockery.
d. Body language & tone of voice: sneering, rolling your eyes, curling your upper lip
a. Seeing yourself as the victim, warding off a perceived attack.
b. Making excuses: “It’s not my fault…”, “I didn’t…”
c. Cross-complaining: meeting your partner’s complaint with a complaint of your own, while ignoring what your partner said.
d. Disagreeing and then cross-complaining: “That’s not true, you’re the one who …” Yes-butting: start off agreeing but end up disagreeing.
e. Repeating yourself without paying attention to what the other person is saying.
f. Whining. “It’s not fair.”
Withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. Partners may think they are trying to be “neutral” but stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation, disconnection, and/or smugness. It breaks your emotional bond.
a. Stony silence.
b. Monosyllabic mutterings.
c. Changing the subject.
d. Removing yourself physically.
Do this instead: Speaker Listener exercise.
I learned this communication method when I taught Parent Effectiveness Training in the 70’s. It’s great to use with children and adults. Children learn it quickly when you model it for them.
Say what’s bothering you instead of bottling it up. Don’t blame, accuse, or use any of the four horsemen. Don’t fight about who is right or wrong.
It’s OK to make non-blameful complaints about your partner’s behavior by using “I messages.” This format helps you figure out what you are feeling and how to express it constructively.
Always keep in mind that you want to build secure emotional attachments. Speak in a way that will be more likely to pull your partner toward you.
Talk about yourself in a vulnerable way instead of analyzing your partner. Most people get defensive when you come at them with anger. There’s usually a vulnerable emotion underneath anger. Find that emotion.
There are two parts to the Speaker Listener exercise: “I messages” and “Active Listening.”
Format of an I Message
The speaker starts.
1. Express your vulnerable emotions in simple words. “I feel sad, hurt, afraid, lonely, powerless, helpless, hopeless, surprised, embarrassed, ashamed, or guilty.”
2. Describe your partner’s behavior that triggered you. Or, you might want to talk about another situation where you were stressed, but your partner was not involved. You want a sounding board.
3. Describe the impact on you. It’s OK to share the interpretations you make, but make sure that you take responsibility for your interpretations instead of assuming they are correct. It’s better to share interpretations about yourself instead of your partner.
4. Make a clear specific request. Describe what your partner can do to meet your needs and increase the secure attachment in your relationship.
5. Offer sincere affirmations and compliments to increase the secure attachment.
Example of an I Message
· “I felt hurt (vulnerable emotion) when you didn’t arrive for our date on time. You didn’t call and you arrived an hour late. (non-blameful description of behavior)
· I feel insecure when you do this. (vulnerable emotion).
· I want to trust you. You are so important to me. (attachment longing).
· Because this has occurred several times (non-blameful description of behavior),
· I conclude that I cannot count on you. I feel less trusting. (interpretation about self)
· This leaves me thinking that I must not be very important to you. (interpretation about partner)
· Then, I question my sense of value and self-worth. (interpretation about self)
· Then, I find myself shutting down to protect myself. (coping protective behavior)
· You’re my #1 guy. I love you so much, and I want a fun relationship with you, and I want it to be healthy. (attachment desire)
· Would you be willing to contact me at least 10 minutes before a date when you are going to be late, tell me when you will arrive, and then keep your promise? I would appreciate it. That will help me feel secure and loved by you.” (specific request in attachment terms.)
The listener responds by giving undivided attention. Use good eye contact. Don’t multitask. Listen to understand because you genuinely care. You’re fully present. You paraphrase your partner’s message until the speaker says, “Yes, you understand me. Thank you.”
Then, you validate your partner. For example, “I see this is important to you. I’m listening. What you are saying makes sense to me.”
You empathize with your partner until your partner feels felt by you. You put yourself in their shoes.
Empathy is essential. Why? People don’t emotionally connect and feel safe with you until they feel understood and cared for.
Ask open-ended questions to understand more about your partner. Stay engaged. Want to learn more.
Change roles until both of you have had a chance to say what’s on your heart. Then, and only then, move on to generating solutions that will work for both of you. You must first generate emotional attachment before fixing the problem or else it’s likely to fail.
While there is a lot more to learn about how to create a happy healthy relationship, start by using these core tools. Avoid harsh startups and the Four Horsemen. Practice the Speaker Listener exercise.
You’ll probably feel awkward at first. That’s normal. Keep practicing until you are comfortable. You would keep practicing any sport you wanted to learn. Give yourselves grace in the learning process.
Most people require counseling to gain mastery with these skills, but you can start by reading books or watching Youtube videos. The first book I recommend is, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.” I also suggest “What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal.” Here’s another basic book: “Hold Me Tight” by Dr. Sue Johnson.
If you would like counseling to improve your marriage or other relationship, please contact me, Benita A. Esposito. I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor in Georgia and Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor in North Carolina. Ask for a complementary 10-minute interview after completing the questionnaire on the Contact Page.