By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
References “Bridging the Couple Chasm” by John Gottman, PhD and Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD
People who love each other sometimes fight. If you have a healthy, loving relationship with another person, it is inevitable you will eventually cross into the territory of “disagreement.” You are two people with different preferences, goals, and beliefs. Eventually you will find yourselves in a situation where only one of you can have your way, and someone will get their feelings hurt. Take heart, arguments are a natural element of relationships. And Gottman’s research proves they won’t damage your relationship, as long as you avoid letting them get out of hand.
Fighting with your spouseWhen you and your spouse disagree, it is often because you both want your way or because one of you is addressing the other’s shortcomings; it would be strange if someone did not bristle over this. How you preserve your marriage is not by preventing the bristling, but by not letting it get out of control. Gottman has studied couples for decades. His research reveals that just because a spouse responds to their mate’s anger with anger does not mean their relationship is doomed. What is unhealthy is when the responding spouse escalates the negativity. (49)
This escalation of negativity is unhealthy because it signifies another problem in the relationship– one spouse’s refusal to be influenced by their mate. And, (Gottman’s research indicates) as it is the wife who broaches most of the problems in a marriage, this means it is typically the husband who is refusing to let his wife “tell him what to do.” Gottman says spouses usually ratchet up the tension because they are trying to make the argument ugly enough to keep the instigating spouse from continuing. Husbands who reject the influence of their wives, refuse to examine their own behavior, and turn brushfire arguments into conflagrations sabotage their marriages. When a husband insists on holding all the power in a marriage, Gottman says there is an 81 percent chance the relationship will fail.
How to argue with your spouse
Avoiding poisonous negativity requires both spouses to keep their cool, and to listen to what the other has to say. Remember the wisdom of Prov. 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (NIV) Whoever broaches the problem needs to avoid seeming as if they are attacking their spouse. Gottman calls this a “softened startup.” Whoever is on the receiving end needs to try to understand their spouse’s point of view and avoid becoming defensive.
What this looks like looks like
(Modeled after an example on pp. 159-160 from Gottman’s “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”)
Jill: So, about doing the dishes after meals.
Scott: (defensive) I always rinse my dishes and put them in the dishwasher.
Jill: (repair attempt) I know, and I appreciate that.
Scott: OK. (he seems more relaxed because he doesn’t feel like his wife is attacking him)
Jill: It’s just, the sink gets pretty full as the week goes on…
Scott: Yeah, I guess I don’t usually pay it much attention.
Jill: Well, to be fair, you don’t spend as much time in the kitchen as I do. (laughs) Do you think we have little house elves that come in, scrub everything, and put it back on the shelves?
Scott: You never know. (laughs) As long as there’s a dish when I reach onto the shelf, I’m not too worried about how it got there.
Jill: (laughs) That makes sense. I understand dishes aren’t high on your priority list. It’s just kind of tiring to fix meals and have to clean up afterward while everyone else scampers off.
Scott: I’d never thought of it that way. That would be frustrating.
Jill: Maybe you could help by unloading the machine sometimes or doing the little dishes while I scrub the big pans.
Scott: Yeah, I guess I could help after dinner more often.
The benefits of softened startup
This is not the first time this couple has argued about doing the dishes. But the reason it didn’t turn into a fight this time is because they did not barrel in like adversaries facing off during battle. Remember what Gottman’s research indicates, it is not an absence of negativity that is good for marriages; it is that spouses do not escalate a negative situation. A mild dust-up every now is not a bad sign; it means you are addressing marriage problems.
To keep uncomfortable conversations from becoming blowouts, you must remember love is not just a feeling; it is a verb. “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” (Prov. 17:17 NIV) It may be difficult to feel your love for your spouse when you’re in the middle of uncomfortable discussion. But the does not lessen the importance of you acting in a loving way. Remind yourself that acting as Christ teaches is not always easy, but it is always beneficial.
Understanding love must be a verb is why Jill and Scott were able to handle this well-worn point of contention so well. Instead of starting in with a sharp comment about how he never helps with the dishes, Jill let Scott know she did not want to fight with or attack him. Because he did not feel threatened, Scott lowered his defenses and listened to Jill’s concerns. Joking and laughing about the problem encourages affection and wards off hostility. Both try to see the problem from the other’s point of view. They may not agree completely with the other, but they do not try to devalue the other’s position.
Christian counseling for couples with marital conflict
Bringing up uncomfortable topics with your spouse is challenging. You feel hurt and frustrated, and it only makes it worse when it seems like your spouse wants to ignore your feelings. On the other hand, you may struggle to sympathize with your mate’s complaints about issues you don’t think are that big a deal. Learning how to navigate negative situations with your spouse without escalating into a blowout is crucial for the health of your marriage. Consider making an appointment with a Christian marriage counselor to discuss how you and your spouse can improve how you handle conflict in your relationship. They will use therapeutic techniques and Biblical principles to help you secure the future of your marriage.
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