By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
References “Bridging the Couple Chasm” by John Gottman, PhD and Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD
With half of marriage ending in divorce, people are eager to know if theirs will work out. As if that were something that was predestined, with designated marriages “doomed from the start.” While we do not have a marital crystal ball, we do have some reliable indicators. After decades of studying and interviewing couples, John Gottman and his associates have a list of several characteristics often found in couples that eventually divorce.
1. More negativity than positivity
Negativity is not bad. In small doses it provides benefits such as, “culling out interaction patterns that don’t work, renewing courtship over time, etc.” However, it becomes harmful when partners focus so intently on each other’s flaws they seem to forget any positivity exists. Gottman has found that, in stable relationships, the typical ratio of interactions is five positive interactions for every negative one. In couples likely to divorce, the ratio was less than one positive interaction for every negative reaction. This is not to say you need to keep a running tally of how you and your mate treat each other. But, should sniping and dissension overwhelm your marriage, it might not be a bad idea to check in with a professional Christian counselor.
2. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
By “four horsemen” Gottman refers to the indisputable harbingers of the end of a marriage. “Criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.” As these get worse, so does the relationship. They tend to fall along gender lines, with wives becoming more critical and husbands stonewalling them. During his research, Gottman also found that as negativity escalated so did a pattern of spouses turning away from their partner’s attempts at emotional connection.
This characteristic is reminiscent of the end of Romans 1 when Paul describes a society that had given itself over to utter depravity. They had lost all self-control and integrity. Much of the behavior Paul criticizes involves disregarding other people. “They are full of envy, murder, strife… no love, no mercy.” Marriages overrun by the Four Horsemen are consumed by the sinful, unloving mindset that consumed the people Paul refers to. Spouses become so overwhelmed by rejection, selfishness, and pain that they use their marriage to batter one another until breaks.
3. Emotional disengagement and withdrawal
As the relationship deteriorates, emotions tend to dry up altogether. Disagreements become less passionate. Camaraderie disappears. “There was a marked lack of affection, shared humor, question-asking, active interest, excitement, joy, support, and empathy.” As with the previous indicator, this characteristic also included partners ignoring the other’s attempts at showing affection. (31)
4. The failure of repair attempts
Gottman has some surprising insight– the goal of relationships should not be to avoid conflict– “even (conflicts) that are painful and alienating. Nor should it be (avoiding) hurting one another’s feelings, or avoiding times when they do not respond to one another’s needs for emotional connection.” Conflict in relationships is inevitable. Saying it is possible to empower two people to stop fighting altogether is like saying you can make it stop being overcast in Seattle. But, disagreements are not altogether unhealthy, either. They can be an effective way of addressing problems. And how can you improve your relationship if you refuse to address relationship weaknesses for the sake of avoiding a disagreement?
What couples should focus on is keeping these inevitable disagreements and misunderstandings from getting out of control, and learning how to approach problems in a way that improves the marriage. (32) This the admonition Paul gave the church at Galatia, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” (Gal. 6:1 NIV) When rebuking your spouse, consider how you would correct a coworker or friend. Would you storm in and launch an attack? Probably not. You would go in “gently,” and make your case in a way that encourages them to see your side. I am not saying you give in if they get upset. Stand your ground. But do not make it your aim to bulldoze them, either.
5. Negative sentiment override
Another sign of dysfunction in marriage is when couples “accentuate the negative, eliminate the positive.” They begin to interpret positive or neutral statements as negative. Gottman cites another researcher, Fritz Heider, who found unhappy spouses had a tendency to look at their own errors and excuse them as the result of a bad day or something temporary like that. However, when they looked at their partner’s errors, they saw them as stemming from “lasting, negative personality traits or character flaws.” (32) Couples who continue in this vein eventually lose most or all of their ability to see their partner positively. They even alter their memories of the early happy days of their relationship to be full of friction. Gottman says there is little hope for couples that have become so negative they re-write the history of their relationship.
6. Maintaining vigilance and physiological arousal
This characteristic is a fancy way of saying, “walking on eggshells.” Any time your partner raises an issue your first reaction is one of “fight or flight.” It often has a lot to do with the way your spouse brings up these issues. If they scream at you every time there’s a problem, it is only natural that you will react by retreating into yourself or screaming back. Your inability to productively deal with problems and conflict eventually destroys the marriage.
“A hot-tempered person stirs up conflict, but the one who is patient calms a quarrel.” (Prov. 15:18 NIV) It can be hard to remain calm when someone attacks you, but refusing to respond to anger with more anger may help de-escalate arguments between you and your spouse. Let them know you appreciate their frustration, but would rather talk about your problems than scream about them. Addressing problems is an essential part of marriage, but there is a healthy way to do it. Barreling at your spouse in a huff, or bristling every time they approach you with a criticism, is not it.
7. Chronic diffuse physiological arousal
Some couples’ inability to keep the peace or reasonably deal with disagreements manifests in physical symptoms. It can increase your heart rate, affect your nervous system, and suppress your immune system. This constant anticipation of a threat can lead to “(a) a decrease in one’s ability to take in information (reduced hearing, reduced peripheral vision, problems with shifting attention away from a defensive posture), (b) an increase in defensiveness, (c) a reduction in the ability to be creative in problem-solving, and (d) a reduction in the ability to listen and empathize.” (33) You become so stressed and overwhelmed with anticipating conflict from your spouse it damages your health and inhibits your ability to deal with everyday life.
8. The failure of men to accept influence from their women
Regardless of your stance on spousal submission, allowing one spouse to make all the decisions and lord over the other is not a recipe for a healthy marriage. But Gottman is not only speaking to making decisions together. He is also talking about being emotionally engaged with your spouse. Men resist their wives’ influence when they refuse to be emotionally involved in the marriage. This characteristic also manifests itself in men reacting with belligerence, contempt, and defensiveness when their wives approach them with problems or complaints. (34)
Each spouse has talents and areas of expertise they bring to the marriage. We are reminded of how valuable this is in Proverbs, “Houses and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the LORD.” (Proverbs 19:14 NIV) Proverbs was written to a male audience, so let’s pretend and make it gender neutral for a moment. “A prudent spouse is from the LORD.” You married your partner because your life is enhanced by them being in it. They add qualities that were not there before. Spouses sacrifice their marriage when they ignore their mate’s unique insight.
Christian counseling for struggling couples
If the characteristics above sound like someone describing your marriage, consider making an appointment with a professional Christian marriage counselor. Sometimes it is just too hard to deal with your marriage problems at home. A counselor’s office offers neutral ground and a skilled moderator to help you and your spouse air your grievances. They will use therapeutic techniques and Biblical principles to help you identify your marriage problems and figure out how you can correct them. We all know the fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control). Sometimes we just need some help reintroducing them into our relationships.
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