More From Dr. Gottman- Criticism

In several of our previous posts we got some interesting insights from The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman, Ph.D. In the next four blogs we’ll look further in to what he refers to as The Four Horsemen – characteristic negative interactions between spouses.

Dr. Gottman acknowledges that all relationships have disagreements that can escalate into harsh and bitter exchanges. In his studies of couples over a twenty-five-year period, he found that there are four distinct negative interactions that are lethal to a relationship. In order, they are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. We’ll look at each of these Four Horseman separately.

But before we dig in, we must understand that we can all be overcomers. We can all choose to take the path of personal growth and reject our negative tendencies. We can choose to forgive even when we have been hurt repeatedly. We can choose to love, even when we have been hated. Jesus said on the cross,

“Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. Luke 23:34

We can choose words of life and reject a carnal tendency that speaks words of destruction. By God’s grace we can all find the way to overcome and respond in love.

Now let’s take a look at Horseman number one, criticism.

Dr. Gottman makes a distinction between making a complaint and criticizing. A complaint focuses on a specific action like the trash not being taken out. “Why didn’t you take out the trash?” A complaint looks at the problem and asks for an explanation. More like data gathering without judgement.

Photo by Zdeslav Schreiber

Photo by Zdeslav Schreiber

On the other hand, criticism looks at the specific action but adds a character assault tothe complaint. “You didn’t take out the trash again like you said you would. What’s the matter with you? You always forget and have some lame excuse”.

Criticism attacks the character. It judges, then blames and demeans. Criticism can be extremely hurtful because it attacks the person. Yes, the trash wasn’t taken out on time and the person may have been wrong, neglectful, lazy, selfish, repeatedly forgetful, and defensive. But when we move from dealing with the problem itself to attacking the person, we put our relationship in danger. We move from being able to work on the problem with an eye to a positive solution to an attack on our spouse which is unloving and hurtful.

If you find that you are in a pattern of criticizing your spouse and not just lodging a complaint, you need to reflect on what you say and how you say it. You need to break the pattern and make a daily conscious choice to withhold critical remarks. Pray for a change of heart.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Ephesians 4:29

Frustration Fatigue

What about it? Have you ever been frustrated with your spouse about a particular issue that just keeps coming up over and over? Have you had prolonged periods of dialogue (arguing) that end with you telling yourself,

“That’s it! I’ve had it. I am so done talking about this. I’ll not say another word. It’s no use. Nothing’s going to change. Just forget about it.”

You vow that’s the last time you’ll bring it up because it’s futile. You resolve to yourself that you just don’t care.

“That’s it! I just don’t care.”

An apathetic spirit becomes your “safe place”. You tell yourself you don’t care and at least for a while, your feelings are dulled. If you don’t care, there is nothing to be anxious about, nothing to work through. Nothing to frustrate you again…..

The “apathy coping mechanism” is a strategy employed by many faced with relational impasses. We use it to shield ourselves from the hurt of dealing with a nagging problem with our spouse. It’s similar to putting medication on an open wound to numb the pain, but ignoring the cause of the wound. We self-medicate with apathy to avoid the underlying issues that are causing the pain.

So how do we deal with a nagging issue that just seems impossible to resolve?

Here are several steps you can take to begin the journey to resolution:

  1. Pray – Understand that an ongoing problem decreases the closeness you experience as a couple. Separation is a spiritual issue. You need to take the matter to God in prayer. Ask for wisdom and understanding. Ask for His direction.
  2. Commit – Renew your commitment to your relationship. Confirm in your heart there is no issue so big that it should divide you as a couple. Commit to work on restoring your relationship. Commit daily to not let an issue be divisive and destroy closeness with your spouse.
  3. Examine – In your time of prayer, ask God to open your heart to introspection. Ask Him to show you if there is something in you that needs to be revealed. Are you the one that needs to change?
  4. Ask – Ask for uninterrupted time to communicate with your spouse. Confirm your love for your spouse. Share your desire to restore your relationship to wholeness and to work though the issue so that there is nothing between you. Pray together, asking God to bless your efforts. Then work together to find a selfless resolution. Be open to compromise, creative alternatives, and to confessing your own culpability. Allow a generous amount of time to work through to a mutually acceptable solution, which may take weeks, months, or longer. Be patient with each other. It takes time to resolve a complex issue.

Set your mind to not let frustration fatigue divide your relationship. Earnestly work at issues that keep you from closeness….         So that your joy may be complete.

That Really Bugs Me!

Do some of the things your spouse does really bug you?  You know those little habits that are so annoying.  For the most part, you have probably developed a coping mechanism that keeps things on an even keel.  Well, most of the time things stay on an even keel.  But in reality, you are just coping.  You are burying it.  You keep yourself from saying anything because you just don’t want to have another argument over a simple little thing.  Why bring it up again and make a mess out of things.  It’s easier to ignore it and forget it.

It certainly can be handled by using the “ignore it” method.  Is that really the best way to deal with it though?  Remember, when you “bury” things, even little things, it creates an unspoken barrier between you and your spouse.  It may even be a little barrier, but nevertheless a barrier.  These small unspoken issues can dampen the spark in your relationship.  You need to be on guard and not allow the little things to grow into big things.

Let’s look at an example like the classic clothes on the floor.  To be sure, he’s gotten better over the years but for some reason he still can’t seem to remember where the clothes hamper is.  Home from work, he goes in to change and sure enough, he leaves his clothes strewn on the floor again.  So, what do you do?  If you pick them up  —  again  —  and say nothing, what will change?  If you bring it up, you feel like you’re just nagging, again.

How about a new strategy?  Remember, many of life’s issues need to be lovingly negotiated.  You need to collaborate together to come to a positive resolution.  Try to be optimistic without being overly expectant.  In other words, be hopeful that things can change, but be realistic.  Some habits take years to change.  Be willing to work together without a harsh or negative attitude.  Try opening a discussion with “Can we talk about something later when you have a little time?”  Set aside uninterrupted time to have a talk together.  Bring the subject up with a spirit of wanting to work things out so that you can enjoy a closer relationship. The goal should be that you are closer and have a better relationship, not just that he remembers to pick up his clothes.

When you have time, try to work out some possible solutions to the issue.  Let him know how you feel and why it is important to you.  Be willing to work toward a solution over time.  Usually there is no need for an immediate fix.  Things truly can get better over time.

Also, always apply the rule of loving each other, even when daily annoyances bug you.  Work at resolving your issues, but work more at committing to love and forgive one another.

Housecleaning 101

Every now and then we need to do some house cleaning.  Usually, due to life’s ever expanding busy schedule and just because things pile up, we need to stop for a few minutes and clean up.  We need to put things back where they belong, wash the dishes, mop the floor, clean off the clutter from the kitchen counters, put the gardens tool back where they go in the garage, and throw away all the mess that has been accumulating around the house.  Ah, doesn’t it feel good?!  Just cleaning up a little here and there can make the heaviness go away!  It even feels good just writing about it. 

How do we apply the House Cleaning 101 lesson to our relationships?  Do we build up messy issues that tend to clutter things up?  Do we leave unresolved sticky problems that, well, we just don’t want to get in to?  Clutter in your relationship is worse than clutter in the house.  In the house, you can just step over it.  No harm no foul, right?  OK!  OK!  Some of you ladies are not agreeing with that one.  But my point is that clutter in your relationship is way worse because it robs us of the ability to be close and intimate with someone special that you really love.  Clutter keeps you at a distance, alone and lonely. 

So what clutter do you have in your relationship?  This takes courage.  Take some time and do some self-assessment of issues that you may have buried and need to discuss.  What are some hurtful things that have happened in the past that aren’t fully resolved? 

One simple exercise is to ask your spouse to honestly let you know the three or four things that you do, maybe out of habit, laziness, insensitivity, or whatever, that really bothers her or him.  The person asking has to be vulnerable and open to hearing about themselves and they must have a willingness to try to understand the other person’s perspective.  This is not a time for self-defense, but rather a time for self-appraisal:  how do the things I do irritate you?  How do they bother you or make you upset?  I really want to understand how my actions make you feel.  Then, ask your spouse what you can do to help improve the situation.  What can you do to change?  This is a very important part of a maturing relationship, when you can exercise personal growth and work at changing those things in your life that are having a negative impact on your spouse.  By beginning to change these things, you can remove some of the relationship clutter and allow your relationship to become closer and more intimate. 

House Cleaning 101.  Try it!  You’ll like the results.        

Imagine, Part 2

In my previous blog I spoke about the need to imagine a better marriage, a closer more fulfilling relationship in which you enjoy being together and where you truly feel like best friends.  How is that possible?  How do you get close to each other when there are so many nagging issues making you so annoyed you could just spit?  How many times have I told him about…?  I wish she would just… and get over it already?  Why does she have to keep nagging and nagging about the same old things?  Why don’t we ever just hug and cuddle like we used to?  It seems that we are so busy and we never get enough time together.  Why does it seem like we are drifting apart?

Why indeed.  Relationship Drift is seldom caused by one or two incidents.  It develops over a long period of time, with many of the same incidents happening over and over again.  The painful hurts caused by words spoken in anger or insults and insensitivity add up into a heaping pile of pain that now you just ignore and bury.  This leads to a dull numb lifeless relationship.  Too much pain and too many issues have broken your relationship apart so that a cool distance now dominates your day to day interaction.  Moments of intimacy are few and far between and usually accented by another fight or disagreement.   If this sounds like your relationship with your spouse, then you have choices to make.  “Really?  I have choices?”  Yes, you do have choices.

First Choice:  Accept the status quo and live with a lifeless loveless relationship that will eventually get worse.  Keep in mind that doing doing nothing rarely results in the relationship getting better.  This is a fatalistic approach that builds on the lie that “it will never change”.  Have you ever heard that lie?  Maybe you’ve spoken that lie to yourself in the past.  Maybe you’re still speaking that lie to yourself even now.  During these moments when we listen to the lie, we usually drop into apathy, telling ourselves that it’s really bad and it will never change, but I don’t care anymore.  Or we attack our spouse to force them to change or else.  Attacking and apathy are not recommended solutions.

 Second Choice:  This is a tough one.  It requires that you sooth yourself and calm yourself down.   Visualize a better relationship.  Imagine a closeness that approaches a nine or nine and a half on a scale of ten.  Now, the next two steps are really tough.  First, work every day at loving and accepting your spouse.  See the positive and verbally relate your appreciation daily.  Surely the things that annoy you won’t immediately go away, but purpose to focus on the positive.  Second, reflect on what you can change about yourself that will make the relationship better.  Focus on personal growth.  What can I do to be a better husband or better wife?  Finally, work at these two EVERY DAY.  Be patient.  Don’t expect immediate change.  Be thankful for any progress.  Love unconditionally. 

 Yes, you can imagine it if you try.

We’ll Never Solve This Issue!

Sometimes progress in your marriage relationship can be a very slow process and the same issue comes up over and over. If we talked it through and came to an understanding, why do we have to go back through it again and again?  There are a couple of obvious reasons:

  • We are all human!  We have habits that are hard to break, baggage that is hard to overcome.  Sometimes we forget or struggle with selfishness.  We need reminding just how important this is to our spouse.
  • Problems are complex and they evolve.  We may think we have resolved an issue but in fact we have addressed only an aspect of it.  Next time we’ll focus on a different aspect.  It is like layers of an onion getting peeled away.  Each time you peel a layer you get closer to the heart of the issue and the final resolution.
  • And we change!  Something important to your spouse now may not be so key at a different stage in life.  We change as our circumstances change and that is just a part of life.

My challenge to you is to think of these recurring problems differently.  As I look back on my life-long struggle with weight, I see a yo-yo pattern of limited success followed by failure again and again.  That is how I looked at it and it became very discouraging.  Why try when failure would follow?

Now I can see the layers of the onion were peeling off and the whole process brought personal growth.  And recently I have learned some things about my stinking thinking that have opened the doors to a hopeful attitude. If I continue thinking of relapse as failure then I will be discouraged and stuck.

Look at it this way… when you take 5 steps forward that is success, and 2 backwards is failure right?  No! 5 forward and 2 back will still get you to your goal if you keep moving!!   It is wrong to see failure when we or our spouse are not perfect.  We should never expect perfection from ourselves or others.  So when those pesky issues recur, don’t be surprised.  Talk them through again, practice forgiveness, and get moving in the right direction, step by step!

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete,                        not lacking anything.                       
James 1:4

A Great Marriage – The Ten Keys Part 2

Last week we looked at the first five keys from the book How to Make A Good Marriage Great –Ten Keys to a Joyous Relationship  by Victor Cline, Ph.D.

Now we’ll look at the remaining five keys.  Here is a summary with my added editorial comments:

  • Sixth Key –  Develop Effective Communication / Negotiation Skills  –  Successful communication with our spouse is essential to a happy marriage and comes with practice, patience, and hard work.  Become a student of the best communication style with your spouse.   The good Dr. has these suggestions:
    • Get quiet time ALONE together, even if that takes an overnight away together. Never discuss critical issues when tired or exhausted.
    • Be a good listener without interrupting.
    •  Don’t flee or run away, rather stick it out and work at issues peacefully.
    • Be honest with each other sharing true and honest feelings.
    • Avoid blame statements and convey how certain actions or statements are making YOU feel.
    •  Remember to be positive and express your thankfulness for what is right in your relationship.
    • Avoid criticism.
    • If it is too difficult to discuss, try writing it out and sharing this letter with your spouse so you can discuss it.  This will allow you to share all your feeling without being “run over.”
  • Seventh Key – The “Extra Dimension”  –  Remember God desires you to have a richly blessed relationship.  Pray for each other and pray together as you work at growing your relationship.  Pray that the Lord will bless you with a patient and understanding spirit and that you learn how to selflessly love your spouse.
  • Eighth Key  –  Acute Stress can Kill Love – Deal with It!  –  Our lives are filled with a variety of stressors including the usual issues of small children (or larger teenage types), job or lack of a job, financial stress, health issues, or family and extended family issues, to name a few.  These can add extreme pressure on even the best of relationships.  But don’t quit.  Look at these times as the “white water days” of your marriage.  Much like a river raft trip, there are calm water days and white water days.  During the white water days you need to really hang on.  Find ways to simplify and de-stress your lives.  I believe that God will restore us to the calm water but remember to love each other even in your white water days, for then you need each other most.
  • Ninth Key – Participate in a Marriage Enrichment / Marriage Encounter Experience – Take time to grow in your knowledge together.  A weekend seminar together should be a major priority.  Find a marriage book to read and discuss together.
  • Tenth Key – Pair-Bonding, Renewing the Magic  –  Work daily at these things:  Make a daily decision to love each other and express that love, shower each other with positives and take time daily to share feelings.

Dr. Cline has shared some valuable ideas on how to have a Great Marriage.  But head knowledge alone will not bring about the desired results.  You must commit to work at these things.  The rewards are worth the effort.