Of seven different in-depth marital studies of a total of 677 couples spanning over 40 years, Dr. John Gottman was able to successfully predict divorces in six of them, one even at the astounding accuracy of 93.6 percent.
During the studies, he and his team managed to identify certain interactions and behavior patterns that weaken marriages and leave couples vulnerable to eventual divorce.
According to Dr. Gottman, these behaviors are the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Practicing these on a regular basis with your spouse is bad news, at least if you want your marriage to last.
The good news, however, is that by identifying and modifying these behaviors couples can turn seemingly hopeless marriages around entirely, creating happiness and contentment where little existed before. It takes work and “want to,” to be sure, but it can be done.
Here are the behaviors, and what I believe it takes to turn them around.
We spend the majority of our time with our spouse, so when that majority of time is spent in a near-constant state of being criticized, it’s no wonder so many eventually want out. We’re all fallible humans, but those of us who are married get to see one fallible human up close and personal, warts and all, every single day. The temptation to want to “fix” what’s ailing our spouse can often be overwhelming, that is until we start to take Jesus’s advice and look at the giant “logs” in our own lives.
Solution: Instead of being critical of your spouse, prayerfully focus on improving the only thing you can actually change: yourself. Without telling your spouse what you are doing, go through a day, just one day, of not saying anything negative about your spouse. Instead, offer praise, encouragement, and love. Then do it for another, and another… until it becomes a part of you. When an issue does need to be addressed, do it carefully with tenderness, respect, and a loving, gracious attitude. The amazing thing is, when you find and release the uncritical spirit in yourself it will likely, over time, lead to similar behavior in your spouse.
Nobody enjoys marital conflict, but it’s inevitable and unavoidable, unless you both suppress your true feelings from each other when issues come up (which I don’t recommend!). In the sense of keeping a “short account” with your spouse and maintaining a spirit of communication that openly shares when you or your significant other have managed to step on one another’s toes, conflict can actually be a good thing. However, when “attacked,” it’s easy to want to dig in and get defensive rather than acknowledging and addressing the actual grievance.
Solution: Learn to “fight fair.” Recognize that when your spouse is telling you about an issue, even arguing with you, it is a sign that he/she actually cares about your marriage and about you. Instead of getting defensive, open up and acknowledge where you have messed up. Even if the words are said in anger, respond with meekness and gentleness so things don’t escalate. You will find your spouse responding in kind.
Whether in our own relationships or in observing the relationships of others, we’ve all seen the telltale signs of contempt - the eye rolling, the sardonic sighs, the name-calling, the mimicking, the downward head-shaking that goes far beyond mere temporary dissatisfaction with another person that will change when circumstances do. In fact, actual contempt toward a spouse reflects much more than mere disapproval of certain actions or behaviors, but rather a “raised white-flag” that signals, “Yes, unfortunately, this is who I’m married to. He/she will never change. I can’t stand it.” And finally… “Is there a way out of having to see this horrible person every day?” In fact, according to Gottman’s research, the visible signs of contempt are the single greatest divorce predictor.
Solution: Recognize contempt not just in your spouse, but in yourself, when it rears its ugly head. Respectfully discuss the actions and attitudes that lead to contempt being felt and expressed. Focus first on self-improvement in the areas that cause resentment in your spouse and it will likely lead to your spouse doing the same. As far as prevention, constant communication is the key. Partners in a marriage should periodically discuss the “state of their marriage” together and nip things in the bud before they become large issues worthy of contempt on either side.
Stonewalling occurs when one or the other partner “shuts down,” and refuses to interact with or respond to the other. If you are being stonewalled, your spouse isn’t even interested enough in you or the issue you’re discussing to show contempt. This is NOT where any of us want to be. When stonewalling is practiced on a regular basis, often this means the marriage is on its last legs and divorce is just around the corner.
Solution: The best solution to stonewalling is to never let it get there in the first place. Make a promise to your spouse that you will always work to resolve issues. Ephesians 4:26 says, “...do not let the sun go down on your anger.” If you can’t settle a dispute before nightfall, express your love for each other and resolve to discuss it in the fresh light of a new day.
Recognizing and avoiding these “four horsemen” will go a long ways toward ensuring your marriage stays happy, healthy, and fulfilling for both you and your spouse.
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