One of the keys to happiness is to have good relationships. Gee, thanks for telling us. Do you think we prefer to squander our exuberance and zest on messed-up marriages? We already know how great happy relationships are. That’s why we get married in the first place. We just don’t know how to do it. So could someone please answer that obvious question?
John Gottman and Nan Silver do just that in their book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work. Rather than focus on those who had sought counseling once their marriage was gravely ill or even dead, Gottman, the principal researcher, included all newlyweds who were brave enough to live in his “Love Lab,” an apartment equipped with two-way mirrors and sound systems permitting continuous daytime observation and data collection. He then followed up with those couples for 30 years. This allowed him to discover not only what went wrong among couples who divorced but also what the successful couples were doing right — so that we could all learn from them.
I am passing on their knowledge in three parts. Part 1 (this column) offers a snapshot, in black and white, of how to destroy what you had hoped to be the most beautiful relationship in your life, bit by petty bit. Part 2 lists Gottman’s false fix-it myths. Part 3 reveals how Gottman’s happy couples keep their love alive and growing.
Seven contagious communication quashers
- The harsh startup: “I am sick and tired of _____!”
No matter how justified you believe yourself to be, if you start a conversation in a harsh way, you doom it from the get-go.
- The four horsemen: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling
Once we fall into argument and debate, we have an unfortunate habit of using these four time-tested methods of making things even worse than they already are.
a. Criticism: “You talk too much” or “You never talk.”
When our loved ones criticize us, we often feel horrid. Why, then, do we do it to them? Because when we’re doing it, we feel completely justified – even though we’re not.
b. Defensiveness: “What do you mean I never listen? I’m always listening!”
There is nothing more invalidating than trying sincerely to tell your loved one how you feel only to hear that you are all wrong.
c. Contempt: “You need therapy.”
Although we may sincerely believe that we are only trying to help when we tell our mates to get therapy, we’re fooling ourselves. Contempt, especially when it masquerades as giving advice, is poison.
d. Stonewalling: the silent treatment.
Stonewalling occurs when we respond to our partners’ complaints with a blank stare. This leaves them feeling cut out, foolish, and ineffective. Nice.
- Flooding: Too sad to cry; too mad to speak; too shocked to protest
Emotional flooding occurs when we are too overwhelmed with emotions to react. We are literally flooded. Unfortunately, this can aggravate the situation even more, since our adversary, er, I mean, loved one, may interpret our pained silence as superciliousness and become even more angry. By this time, we are on a very slippery slope.
- Body language
No matter who started what, once we get to this point in the conflict, our entire system activates. Our heart rate elevates; our blood pressure rises; our inner trio of trouble, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, gleefully releases stress hormones to ride the rapids of our now turbulent bloodstream. Then, when the waters finally become more tranquil, our brains fool our stomachs into thinking we’re hungry — and not for celery, either. We calm our emotions with all sorts of substances and behaviors that ultimately fill us with self-loathing.
- Failed repair attempts: “You’re not getting off that easy, pal…”
Have you noticed that some couples manage to make up almost instantly, no matter how much blood had been shed mere minutes before? How the heck do they do it? According to Gottman, they are geniuses of “repair attempts.” One gladiator signals his or her adversary (er, spouse) that it is time to make up; their rival (I mean partner) accepts; and moments later they’re giggling, flirting and cavorting with each other.
Repair attempts are those subtle little signs, whether words or actions, which signal to the other that the sender is ready to forget the whole thing and just make up. The success of these messages depends not on their logic nor on their relevance, but simply on their ability to communicate good will. It is then up to the receiver of the peace offering to accept it. Unhappy couples either fail to make repair attempts; or they spurn their partners’ efforts. Harmless differences then devolve into disputes; clashes become quarrels; and if one member decides to take things personally, then all I can is — duck and cover.
- Bad memories: “She never stopped complaining”
To err is human; to forgive is – also human. We are compassionate species, when given half a chance. But we need some good reasons. We need to be able to look back over the course of a relationship and say, “I remember when he got up in the middle of the night and fixed me that complicated concoction for my cough.” Or, “Yes, those were good times camping on Mt. Daniel and swimming in the limpid lake…” Or, “I remember when she used to make me pancakes every Sunday because she knew that they brought back the happy times of my childhood.” Without those good memories, we begin to ask ourselves, why try?
- Relationship death: “It was a mistake from the get-go”
Once we’ve reached this point, we rarely succeed in reviving our connection. Things have just gone too far. There is too much pain on both sides. Gottman notes that both partners see their problems as severe; both feel that talking is pointless; and they begin to lead parallel lives. A deep sense of loneliness sets in.
Yikes! Are you feeling utterly miserable, yet? Do not despair — help is on its way… but first we must learn about what NOT to do.
Dr. Kara Witt is a psychologist in the Twin Cities.
This article first appeared in the July 2012 issue of Minnesota Good Age. We may earn commissions on some of the links on this page, at no cost to you.