By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
References “Bridging the Couple Chasm” by John Gottman, PhD and Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD
Marriages do not succeed because they follow a recipe. There is no “one-guide-fits-all” that can ensure the survival of your relationship. Each relationship is different, therefore couples must figure out what works for them. However, many people cling to unrealistic ideals about what a “perfect” relationships looks like. Below are four misconceptions about relationships, followed by research debunking them.
1. Myth: Extreme styles of conflict (such as avoiding conflict or bickering constantly) are signs of an unhealthy relationship.
Gottman: As every couple is different, it is unreasonable to say their disagreements must fit a cookie cutter definition of “acceptable conflict.” Gottman references a book by Harold Raush that claimed couples that wholly avoid conflict and couples that bicker constantly are dysfunctional. Gottman disagrees. His research indicates that, as long as a couple has at least five positive interactions for every negative interaction they have, they are doing fine. It is when a couple has closer to equal positive and negative interactions, or more negative interactions than positive that they are in trouble.
2. Myth: Couples with mismatched conflict styles will never survive.
Example of a mismatched couple: A conflict-avoider and a person with a volatile style. An avoider reacts to conflict by refusing to engage, or by ignoring problems and hoping they work themselves out. A person with a volatile style passionately engages in conflict. These two are a mismatch because the volatile style is too much for the avoider. The avoider will most likely shut down every time their spouse approaches them about a problem, which will frustrate the volatile person, and incite them further. Nothing will ever be resolved because they cannot communicate with one another.
Gottman: This one is not really a myth. Gottman’s research proves that spouses with incompatible conflict styles will inevitably divorce. However, couples that learn how to handle their differences can make their marriage work. Dr. Sue Johnson has a great book, “Hold Me Tight,” about dealing with this kind of fatal cycle.
There is hope for couples that find it almost impossible to discuss or resolve problems. While they may not be able to handle their differences on their own, God can empower them to. Remember what Jesus told the apostles, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:26 NIV) Get in touch with a professional Christian counselor who will provide the therapeutic insight to help you and your spouse understand how to tackle your differences. Pray that God will give you the strength to make changes and be compassionate toward one another.
3. Myth: You can solve every problem in your relationship.
Gottman: Of all the fights couples have (not you of course, you never fight), 69 percent are perpetual, unsolvable issues. A “perpetual issue” is something you and your spouse have disagreed about before, and will probably disagree about again, but will never resolve. Examples include how you spend your money or your free time. Perpetual issues exist because you and your spouse have different preferences and opinions. You repeatedly argue about them with no resolution because your limited resources make it impossible for you both to get what you want.
Differences in opinion are to be expected. It does not necessarily mean one of you is right, and the other is wrong. Paul addressed this with the church at Rome because the members disagreed about what behavior to expect from other believers. “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.” (Rom. 14:4 NKJV) Paul was telling the church to be tolerant of other people’s beliefs. After all, they were just doing what they thought was right by their conscience. Spouses must solve the disagreements they have, and be compassionate to one another on those they cannot.
The key here is not to try to resolve these issues, rather to accept you cannot. Instead, focus your energy on keeping related disagreements from getting out of hand. Healthy couples deal with perpetual issues with humor, affection, and by showing their partner they accept them. As Gottman quoted another researcher, “There is value, when choosing a long-term partner, in realizing that you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years.” (53)
Gottman: As the previous section proved, conflict is part of successful relationships. Conflict is not altogether bad. Coming to your partner with complaints is the only way you can address the weaknesses in your relationship and do something about them. Women are critical here, as 80 percent of the time it is the wife who broaches the problem with her husband. Regardless of who brings up the problem, it is essential they do so in a way that does not immediately alienate the other spouse. Gottman call this having a “soft start-up.” Rather than tearing into your spouse with personal attacks, begin with a compliment, or just calmly state your complaint. (35)
Wrong: You’re so careless! I’ve asked you a million times to pay attention to the bank account, but you keep bouncing checks anyway!
Better: I understand you’ve had a lot on your plate lately, but I wish you would pay better attention to the checking account. You just bounced your third check this month.
When approaching touchy subjects with your spouse, it often helps to bring it up with them as you would someone you are not as comfortable with, such as coworker. Odds are you would not start screaming at a coworker about their seeming inability to manage their finances the second you find out about that third bounced check. You would go to them with the goal of firmly making your case, but politely enough that you do not hurt their feelings or start a fight.
Christian Counseling for a Healthy Marriage
Marriage is hard. Just because it does not have to look as perfect as you read in books or see on screens to be considered healthy, does not mean you can take your hands off the wheel and coast. Healthy marriages require maintenance. They have the skills to assess your relationship, help you identify weaknesses, and see how you can correct them. They will also incorporate biblical principles to guide your marriage into alignment with God’s plan for matrimony.