A lot of people make the mistake of thinking they do not have marriage problems because they don’t argue much, and do a pretty good job looking after the family responsibilities. According to research this simply is not true.
One study by the California Divorce mediation found that the most common reason given for divorcing given by 80% of the men and women was gradually growing apart and losing a sense of emotional closeness, and not feeling loved and appreciated. Severe and intense fighting was only endorsed by 40% of the couples. This may be why divorce or perpetual unhappiness are such a shock to discover in the Christian marriage.
When I was a pastor I was having marriage problems but no one knew it because my wife and I never fought, but we were in fact cascading towards a divorce via emotional disengagement. I learnt to not compare my marriage to the apparent outer tranquility you see in other couples. All may not be as well as it looked on the outside.
As a marriage counsellor and a Christian I consistently deal with Christian couples. Drawing on honest and objective research in Marriage is quite compatible with seeking God in prayer, and provided principles that emerge from research such as forgiveness and faithfulness, align with Scripture there is much that can help couples when this profound union of marriage is in trouble.
The Gottman Institute (www.gottman.com) is widely accepted as providing some of the most effective tools available in helping therapists zero in on couples problems. A widely accepted authority on marriage, John Gottman is world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, involving the study of emotions, physiology, and communication. His breakthrough research on marriage and parenting has earned him numerous major awards. He is also emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington. Gottman is able to predict with more than 90% accuracy which couples will make it, and which will not.
These are six of his top suggestions for health in marriage:
1. Stop the “Four horsemen of the Apocalypse”
(Criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stone-walling). Not all negativity is the same, these four predict divorce more than any other issue. Regarding criticism and defensiveness, those who simply edit their speech, avoiding expressing every critical thought when discussing touchy topics are consistently the happiest. Make a rule to not be defensive and accept some responsibility. This will help you avoid resentment and shutting down. Contempt and stone-walling, that is refusing to interact, leaving the room in mid conflict, are more serious issues.
2. Soften your “start-up.”
Arguments first “start-up” because a spouse sometimes escalates the conflict from the get-go by making a critical or contemptuous remark in a confrontational tone. Better to express feelings. “When you do [such and such] it makes me feel ———. That approach avoids blaming and judgement. Bring up problems gently and without blame.
3. Accept influence.
A marriage succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife. A typical interaction might go; Wife: “Do you have to work Thursday night? My mother is coming that weekend, and I need your help getting ready.” Husband replies, “My plans are set, and I’m not changing them”. This relegates the worth of the wife. A husband’s ability to be influenced by his wife (rather than vice-versa) is crucial because research shows women are already well-practiced at accepting influence from men, and a true partnership only occurs when a husband can do so as well.
4. Have high standards.
Happy couples have high standards for each other even as newlyweds. The most successful couples are those who, even as newlyweds, refused to accept hurtful behavior from one another. The lower the level of tolerance for bad behavior in the beginning of a relationship, the happier the couple is down the road.
A Note for couples getting married be aware of the danger periods in a marriage. 50% of divorces happen in the first 7 years. This is generally affected by a phenomenon of the birth of the first child, in which 67% of all couples (mainly wives) report a drop in marital satisfaction. Later in life couples tend to get divorced after the kids grow up. This group reports a loss of common interests, rituals of connection and lack of intimacy.
5. Learn to repair and exit the argument.
Successful couples know how to exit an argument. Happy couples know how to repair the situation before an argument gets completely out of control. Successful repair attempts include:
- changing the topic to something completely unrelated;
- using humor;
- stroking your partner with a caring remark (“I understand that this is hard for you”);
- making it clear you’re on common ground (“This is our problem”);
- backing down (in marriage, as in the martial art Aikido, you have to yield to win); and, in general,
- offering signs of appreciation for your partner and his or her feelings along the way (“I really appreciate and want to thank you for.”).
If an argument gets too heated, take a 20-minute break, and agree to approach the topic again as soon as you are both calm.
6. Focus on the bright side.
In a happy marriage, while discussing problems, couples make at least five times as many positive statements to and about each other and their relationship as negative ones. For example, “We laugh a lot;” not, “We never have any fun”. A good marriage must have a high level of positive outlook. Affirmations of the relationship are like deposits in an ’emotional bank account.’
Darren Wilk M.A. RCC is a counsellor in Langley, B.C. with a private practice.