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By: Mozelle Forman, Lcsw

While working with couples I always stress that to make marriage satisfying they should aim to decrease the negative interactions between them while increasing the positive. Last month we examined the expert’s advice on the key factors of a successful relationship. On the flip side of what to do to nurture our relationships, let’s look at the behaviors we need to avoid in order to keep our marriages safe and fulfilling.

John Gottman, co-founder of the Gottman Institute and author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, is world renowned for his work on marital stability. For forty years he conducted a longitudinal study, observing over 3,000 couples while they were discussing marital problems. During the discussions Gottman monitored the couples’ physical responses – heart rate, body language, and tone of voice. Based on this research, Gottman identified four behaviors that hebelieves threaten relationships, and if not remediated, can lead to devastation of the relationship. He called these behaviors – criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. While these terms may be familiar to us, we may not be aware of how theycreep into our communications with our spouses and erode the good will between us. We also may not know how to combat them.

Criticism– turns a complaint about a behavior into a
character assassination.

Example:“You always talk about yourself. You areso selfish.”

In order to remedy criticism, practice this: Tell them what you need and not what they are doing wrong.The simplest way to do this is to use “I” statements.

Antidote:“I’m feeling left out by our talk tonight. Can we please talk about my day?”

Defensiveness – a common response to criticism, defensivenessis a form of self-protection used when one feels attacked. Unfortunately, defensiveness sends the message that you are
not taking responsibility for your part in the problem, however small it may be.

Example:“It’s not my fault that we’re always late; it’s
your fault.”

Instead, accept responsibility for your behavior and engage with your spouse in problem solving as a team. So even when there is a problem, there is still togetherness.

Antidote:“Well, I did come home later than I said I would.
I need to be more careful with time.”

Contempt– When you speak to your partner with contempt you are communicating scorn, disgust, and a position of superiority. Gottman considers contempt “the sulfuric acid of relationships” as it destroys any loving feelings between two people. Some examples of contempt include use of sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling,
eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor.

Example: “Can’t you ever do anything right? Do I always have to fix your mistakes?”

The antidote is building a culture of appreciation and a commitment to respectful communication, even, and especially when, you disagree.

Antidote:“I appreciate your input even if I don’t
necessarily agree.”

Stonewalling– When one person shuts down and closes off from the other he/she literally becomes like a stone wall –not engaging or expressing any emotion whatsoever. Gottman found that 85% of the time it was the man who was stonewalling. Most men reported that when they became “flooded” with negative emotions they engaged in stonewalling in order not to make the situation worse. Yet, because stonewalling communicates that you are completely disinterested in your spouse’s concerns, it actually escalates the problem and makes things worse.

Example:One spouse confronts the other with a complaint, and he simply remains silent and will not respond.

Antidote:Take a time out from the conflict and practice physiological self-soothing. Let your partner know that although you are interested in her feelings, you’re feeling flooded and need to take a break. That break should last at least twenty minutes, since it will take that long before your body physiologically calms down. Return to the discussion with a new perspective.

The more these four behaviors become habitual, the more trouble the relationship is in, because hopelessness and apathy can set in. Although it may be a relief not to argue, ignoring conflict creates a lack of interest in one another, which destroys affection, humor, and fun. When there is conflict in our relationships, which is inevitable, it is imperative to repair and reconnect, and ultimately revise our way of being together.

If you recognize these patterns of behavior in your relationship, it is imperative that you address them, preferably with the guidance of a professional, before they become the ingrained status quo of your marriage.