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Two Things You Must Do to have a Successful Marriage. Part 1

March 7, 2022

I know it’s dangerous to break something as complex as marriage down into a couple of discrete categories. But these two things I have found, having worked with hundreds of couples, tend to stand out as absolutely critical to success in achieving a healthy marriage. And by the way, the opposite of each of these is devastating to success. So let’s be short and simple with this.

1. Find the Most Generous Explanation for Each Other’s Behavior and Believe It!

This sounds easy of the face of it. Depending on how far a couple has allowed their relationship to deteriorate, it can be next to impossible. “I can’t think of one nice thing to say about him,” is what I’ve heard from troubled couples over the years.

This might be a good time to post several warning signs that things are turning in a troubling direction in your marriage. These signs are from the work of Dr. John Gottman, one of the leading researchers in marriage, who called these signs the four horseman (as in the Apocalypse: the end times).

1. Criticism. I guess all of us from time to time find ourselves criticizing our spouses for one thing or another. But a switch occurs when we move from criticizing actions to criticizing your spouse as a person. “I don’t like the way you fold laundry” is one thing. “I don’t like you as a housekeeper” is quite another. “I can’t think of one good thing to say about you,” is truly dangerous.

When criticism shifts away from specific acts, to character traits, the couple has entered a new, more dangerous realm. And this is especially dangerous if that criticism of the person’s character and essential personhood spills from behind closed doors into the public arena. I always assumed that if I had a problem with my wife, that was between her and me. Others, unless of course these were trained professionals, need not and should not be involved.

2. Contempt. What separates contempt from criticism is the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner, both verbally and nonverbally. This is the next step after criticism has become personal. At this point, the spouse has become an object of derision. Usually, all the complexities that make up any human being have now been compressed into one or two categories, as if these will be an honest and complete explanation of a person , both of which are negative. “She always,” or “she never” is often what is heard, as if this adequately describes the complexity that each person represents. But in the eyes of the describing spouse, this is all that is now seen. All else is ignored (what is commonly called confirmation bias).

This contempt is often accompanied by:

• Hostile humor. The movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, `Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ is a great depiction of ongoing hostile humor.
• Mockery. Here, sarcasm and distain are the trademarks of the attack on the other person.
• Victimization. Here an inner script shows you that you are being victimized by your spouse.

3. Defensiveness. As each spouse is attacked, a defensive posture is assumed and maintained by each. This is typically a response to criticism. We’ve all been defensive, and this horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel unjustly accused, we fish for excuses and play the innocent victim so that our partner will back off.
Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take their concerns seriously and that we won’t take responsibility for our mistakes:
• Question: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”
• Defensive response: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact, you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”
This partner not only responds defensively, but they reverse blame in an attempt to make it the other partner’s fault. Instead, a non-defensive response can express acceptance of responsibility, admission of fault, and understanding of your partner’s perspective:
“Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. That’s my fault. Let me call them right now.”

Although it is perfectly understandable to defend yourself if you’re stressed out and feeling attacked, this approach will not have the desired effect. Defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if the critical spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner, and it won’t allow for healthy conflict management.
4. Stonewalling. The fourth horseman is stonewalling, which is usually a response to contempt. Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding to their partner. Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall can make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors.
It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a bad habit. And unfortunately, stonewalling isn’t easy to stop. It is a result of feeling physiologically flooded, and when we stonewall, we may not even be in a physiological state where we can discuss things rationally.
If you feel like you’re stonewalling during a conflict, stop the discussion and ask your partner to take a break:
“Alright, I’m feeling too angry to keep talking about this. Can we please take a break and come back to it in a bit? It’ll be easier to work through this after I’ve calmed down.”

Then take 20 minutes to do something alone that soothes you—read a book or magazine, take a walk, go for a run, really, just do anything that helps to stop feeling flooded—and then return to the conversation once you feel ready.
Okay, we’re going to look for the most positive, generous explanation of our spouse’s behavior. In the next blog we’ll talk about the second important step. But then we’ll take more time to discuss why this can be very difficult (especially if you’re slowly submerging in the four horsemen signs we discussed above.


About Dr. Jim Osterhaus

Dr. Jim Osterhaus is the Senior Executive Coach at Leighton Ford Ministries with extensive experience helping ministry leaders and organizations
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