When you're engaged, all you can think about is how wonderful married life is going to be. And it is wonderful! Boy boy, there's a lot to learn! Especially within that first year.
And as is the case in most marriages: growth = conflict.
And there may be times where that growth is painful.
I get it. I've been there.
It's not easy figuring out how to be married! I know it wasn't a very graceful transition for us... and to be completely honest, getting the hang of marriage is mostly a process of trial and error.
But it doesn’t have to be that way for you! Not completely anyway.
My goal is to take some of the guess work out of your marriage, because in my opinion, you deserve relationship education. You shouldn't have to figure this out on your own.
So with that in mind, today's post covers the 4 habits most damaging to relationships.
1. They are a poison that have the power to kill your marriage if you’re not careful.
2. They each have simple “antidotes” that you can learn to use.
3. So many newlywed couples make these mistakes without even realizing!
4. Recognizing and avoiding these four habits has saved us from some pretty BIG fights.
(And I want to help you avoid those big fights, too.)
The information I'm sharing with you today comes from marriage researcher, John Gottman. During his research, he was able to predict with 93% accuracy which couples would end up divorced. 93 percent! (That’s UNHEARD OF in relationship research, by the way.)
Through his observations, he noticed seven behaviors that build marriage up, and four that tear it down.
These four negative habits, or “four horsemen of the apocalypse” as he calls them, are the indicators he used to make such accurate predictions of divorce.
But don’t worry, you’re not automatically “doomed for divorce” if you recognize some of these… it just means that you’ve got some “unlearning” to do.
One of the easiest pitfalls of marriage (especially early on while you are still adjusting) is to criticize your spouse.
Criticism is essentially forming your complaint as an attack on the other person. Your message (although perhaps disguised) contains the intent of "this is YOUR fault!" or "You are to blame for this!".
Basically, what you’re saying is “I’m fine, and you’re the problem here.”
To be fair, I’m sure you would never say such a thing outright, but do you know how many times you criticize your husband without even noticing?
Take this for example:
You lovingly nag your husband about his cleanliness every so often, and in a moment of thinly veiled frustration you say something like:
"Why are you so messy? You always forget to put your dishes in the dishwasher..."
Not too bad, right? I mean, you didn’t insult him or really let him have it… (although you could have!) So, what’s the problem?
Here, the problem is that you've attacked your husband for something you've identified as a character quality. Basically what you’ve said is “you are messy.”
These types of comments are called static evaluations. They are unchanging, blanket statements about a person’s way of being.
Here, you've assigned him an identity of being messy.
What would you think if someone close to you said, “you’re a slob” or “you are so uptight"? My guess is that you probably wouldn’t appreciate that very much.
Because they may have caught you in a moment where you were acting like a slob… but that’s different! It’s not who you are! There’s much more to you than that.
When people use negative static evaluations, it can feel like an attack (or at best a misrepresentation) of your character as a person.
Static evaluations feel like this:
Then, you threw in a word you should always avoid in marriage. ALWAYS.
No, that’s the word… “always”.
Always and never are two words that immediately cause defensiveness in the other person. The minute you assert that someone is always or never doing something, you set yourself up for a rebuttal of “Not always! This one time…”
So even in the second part of this example statement, what you’ve communicated is that he's the problem here, not you. This is the heart of criticism.
Criticism is locating the problem WITHIN the other person.
This is a negative communication pattern that will get you into a lot of trouble in your relationship because it stirs up conflict.
The hard part is that it can be so easily disguised, and it can so easily slip out of your mouth in moments of frustration!
That’s why the Bible reminds us that:
“The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered.” Proverbs 17:27
Now, let me just clarify, you are allowed to have these feelings of frustration, and feel that your spouse has done something objectionable. But if you want to get anywhere with them, you need to phrase your comment in a way that they can actually hear it.
The way to avoid to criticism is to complain.
Sounds counterintuitive, huh? But it's true!
What I mean is, instead of locating the problem WITHIN the other person, the problem needs to be OUTSIDE the other person. Complain about the state of things and what’s going on, not your husband.
Another key to avoiding criticism is to use "I language", which explains how you feel.
"Wow, our house is a mess. It seems like I put one set of dishes away, just to have more appear! When dishes get left out like this, it's really frustrating for me because I can't relax until the job is done.”
In this example you haven’t pinned him as the “bad guy”, so chances are good that he will be more open to receiving your complaint, and less likely to get defensive.
This approach also gives you the ability to move forward and find a solution for the problem, because in this scenario, the problem isn’t the fact that one of you exists!
As I said earlier, when someone criticizes us, it’s natural for us to go into self-protection mode.
We put our shields up because we need to justify ourselves and stick up for ourselves!
Especially if someone is throwing insults our way!
Defensiveness is such an automatic reaction we hardly even give it a second thought.
As natural as it may seem , defensiveness can be devastating to relationships.
Defensiveness might sound like this…
“I spend too much money? How about all of those new clothes you just bought?”
Or even “That’s not true! In fact, just last week I…”
Defensiveness is something we all have a tendency to do. But guess what? It makes the list too!
If your spouse is criticizing you, being defensive will only escalate the conflict. It creates a "me versus you" dynamic, and it robs you of a chance to empathize with your spouse.
Also, just because they didn’t package their complaint nicely doesn’t mean you can totally write off what they’ve said. Even if they were a brat about how they approached it, there’s something going on in your relationship that deserves your consideration and attention.
Being defensive shows that you're more concerned about protecting your pride (and correcting your spouse) than actually hearing them out.
Defensiveness is when we shift responsibility onto someone or something else. It’s shifting the blame off of you.
Part of the reason we do this is because we all have what’s called a “self-serving bias”. This means that we see ourselves in a very positive light.
We judge ourselves based on our intentions, and we judge our spouse based on their behavior.
Does that sound fair?
Defensiveness can be VERY compelling because it means we get to remain the hero of our own stories. We don’t have to see or address our shortcomings.
The antidote for defensiveness is to accept responsibility, and validate the other's perception.
But what about those times where you KNOW they are totally off base, and they are being ridiculous?!
Yes. Those times too.
Don’t rush to defend yourself when you’re in conflict with your spouse. Think about the example Jesus set for us. When he was being accused, what did he do?
"When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly." 1 Peter 2:23
So yes, even if your spouse is being completely irrational… listen. Try to take a teeny, tiny bit of responsibility for your part in the situation. If you can’t agree with what they're saying, at least acknowledge their point of view.
Listening and accepting what they've said shows humility.
And humility is necessary for responding with empathy (which is what a critical spouse is really looking for anyway… they want to be understood and their point of view validated).
Responding by hearing them out and taking responsibility shows that your spouse is more important than being right.
(Bonus! Genuine curiosity about how you could have made the situation better also tends to disarm a critical spouse and de-escalate a conflict.)
“You’re right, I was pretty upset about that.”
“I completely forgot how important that was to you. I’m sorry.”
“I did notice that. What could I have done differently?”
“I can see where you might get that impression…”
Even if you’re only able to communicate to your partner the fact that you're feeling defensive, it can do a lot to help you.
This is something my husband and I started doing and it’s been really great!
If we begin to get overwhelmed with what the other is saying, and we start to feel our hackles going up… we just say “I hear what you’re saying, but just so you know, I’m getting really defensive right now.”
(Note: this is a much better alternative to the common phrase “I feel like you’re attacking me right now” which ascribes motive to the other person).
If one of us says “I’m feeling really defensive right now”, that’s an indicator that we may have been too harsh, and we’re headed toward conflict territory.
It’s a good signal for the other to back off.
Usually we take that opportunity to cool down, or if we can still have a civil discussion, it can become an opportunity to (nicely) explain where we are coming from, and why we happen to feel so defensive.
Stonewalling happens when we become emotionally overwhelmed or “flooded”.
Have you ever experienced that feeling when in a conflict?
It’s usually a crippling feeling of being overtaken by strong emotions, and being unable (or unwilling) to articulate your emotional experience.
Stonewalling is when you’re so emotionally reactive and overwhelmed, the safest and best option seems to be silence.
Interestingly, stonewalling is something we do to self-sooth, or calm ourselves down, and it’s predicted by a heart rate of over 100 bpm. Things get to be too much, so we shut down.
Usually stonewalling accompanies thoughts like:
“If I say anything right now, I’m going to make it worse…”
“Keep it together. A few more minutes of this and then it’ll be over… just wait it out…”
Or my personal favorite…
“I WILL NOT CRY. I WILL NOT CRY. I WILL NOT CRY.”
(anyone else out there do this one?)
Stonewalling is the result of a physiological reaction, and it happens when our stress response system kicks in.
You probably have heard that when activated, our stress response system triggers three basic reactions: fight, flight, and freeze.
Well let me be the first to tell you, you will see these reactions during marital conflict, too.
Stonewalling is what happens when you’re so overwhelmed, you freeze. You disengage, and detach even though this may be an important conversation to you.
The problem? Most of the time your partner sees you shut down, and interprets this as you tuning them out, becoming disinterested, or avoiding the issue.
Try to remain engaged in the conversation for as long as you can, and when needed, take a break.
Your body needs 20 minutes (minimum!) to calm down and disengage your stress response system.
And this would be like 20 minutes in a dark room, praying, meditating on happy thoughts, and listening to Enya. So take the full 20 minutes, or more!
But before you do, establish that this is a break, and you will come back to the subject later. Establish a time and place to continue the conversation so it won’t be swept under the rug.
Also, learn to recognize this response in your spouse.
Don’t assume they’re turning away from you, instead come along side of them and offer reassurance.
They’ve reached emotional capacity and they’re shutting down. The last thing they need is you nagging them about why they won’t talk to you, demanding they acknowledge you, or maintain the conversation and it's current trajectory.
Recognize that it’s not a choice they’re making to hurt you. It’s physiological. Chances are, they are just trying not to make the situation worse!
Contempt is a mindset of superiority. This is the most damaging thing for relationships, and actually has negative health consequences associated with it!
Contempt is communicating that you are better, superior, or above the other person.
You send these messages when you talk down to someone, when you mock them, or otherwise show disrespect.
“You are so pathetic.”
“Awwww, you try so hard. You are so cute!”
"All you say is 'Oh it’ll be ok… everything’s going to turn out alright... Blah blah blah…'”
"You are such an idiot."
“You can be so stupid sometimes.”
All of these examples have a condescending tone – the hallmark of contempt.
In fact, you don’t even need words! Just rolling your eyes and acting disgusted is all it takes to communicate contempt for your spouse.
Contempt is degrading.
It erodes trust, and undoes whatever positive affirmations you might be communicating in your relationship.
How can you be with someone who thinks you are just an annoyance, far below their moral, social, or intellectual superiority? There’s a reason this one is the worst of them all.
Communicate respect and admiration, and choose to hold your spouse in high regard.
Affirm them. Even when you’re in the middle of a conflict, even when it’s hard.
Acknowledge what they’re doing well, and make it clear that you genuinely admire them for the things they’re doing right.
Recognize that they are loved by Christ just as much as you are. They are an image-bearer of God, just like you are. They deserve your respect.
Remind yourself that you are both imperfect, but you are each doing the best you can. Be determined to speak with respect, and treat each other with gentleness.
Committing these “four horsemen” to memory and being able to avoid them (or identify them when they sneak in) has, in many ways, SAVED our marriage before it even needed saving.
I would highly encourage you to remember these as well. Talk about them with your partner. Get good at noticing them.
Being able to recognize when you’re engaging in these habits helps you make the right course corrections before you suffer BIG consequences.
So friends, keep up the good work in prioritizing your marriage! And let’s help one another un-learn these four destructive habits.
Have you noticed any of these in your relationship?
Which antidote do you think will have the biggest positive influence in your relationship?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.