The thought of having the same argument over and over for the rest of your life is daunting. That's why learning how to deal with perpetual problems before you tie the knot will set you up for a successful happily ever after. Though you may never resolve an issue—don’t pull your hair out just yet—you are totally capable of managing conflict with less stress.
The reality is that there are problems in every marriage due to differences in personality and lifestyle. According to John Gottman’s research, 69% of relationship problems are perpetual. That means it’s unrealistic to think that you need to have everything solved before getting married.
Let’s ditch the word “resolve” all together, and use “manage” instead when talking about these problems that tend to get rehashed. In order to have a successful marriage, you need to shift from explosive arguments that lead to hurtful comments, resentment and disconnection to more effective communication skills.
Gottman found that emotional withdrawal and anger can lead to a distant divorce—about 16.2 years down the road after your wedding. However, he identified four specific behavior patterns, which he calls the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” which can lead to an early divorce—just 5.6 years after saying, “I do.” This is certainly not the happily ever after that you’re envisioning!
These potential divorce-causing behaviors are:
- Criticism: blaming or attacking your partner’s personality or character (ex. “You never do the dishes, you are so lazy!”)
- Contempt: speaking to your partner from a position of superiority by undermining or devaluing, which also includes negative body language, such as eye rolling, and hurtful sarcasm (ex. “I’d never do that, you’re such an idiot!”)
- Defensiveness: self-protection through playing the victim or self-justifying to defend against a perceived attack (ex. “I wouldn’t have yelled if you didn’t push my buttons first”)
- Stonewalling: shutting down or withdrawing emotionally from the interaction (ex. After a wife criticizes her husband, he retreats to his man cave instead of responding to her or giving her the answer she is looking for)
Meeting your partner’s anger with hostility destroys trust and his or her ability to be vulnerable in the relationship. This leads to a decrease in intimacy and connection. As soon to be newly weds, it’s essential to learn how to manage conflict in a healthy way.
You can avoid these divorce-predictive behaviors by being more conscious of how you start up a conversation. Typically, you engage in these unpleasant behaviors because you're flooded by emotions. Something your partner did (or didn’t do) got you upset. You tend to get angry when something is important to you, and it’s either misheard, invalidated, or deemed unimportant by your partner.
I like to think of anger as a secondary emotion. Usually underneath the anger you’re feeling hurt, sad, betrayed, fearful, or vulnerable. When you respond to your partner’s anger with more anger, this makes it very challenging to dig beneath the anger to address what’s really going on.
When you communicate by engaging in one of the four horsemen, your partner responds to this negative behavior, rather than to the core issue that’s important to you. This leads to you behaving as two opponents rather than as a team. As soon as your partner feels attacked, blamed, or criticized, he or she will fire back, shut down, or defend, rather than listening to what’s upsetting you in the first place.
Ultimately, everyone wants to receive empathy and understanding from their partner—and ideally, acknowledgement or responsibility when you’re in the wrong.
The next time you’re heated, be mindful of your automatic harsh response, and try starting a more gentle conversation, phrasing it by using the following three-step approach:
- I FEEL… (name emotion)
- ABOUT…(describe the situation that is creating the feeling, rather than describing your partner’s flaws)
- I NEED…(describe how your partner can help you to feel better about the issue)
For example, my husband is way messier than I am, but rather than assuming he’s doing it maliciously to push my buttons, I acknowledge it’s a difference in lifestyle. A messy house makes me feel overwhelmed and prevents me from relaxing, whereas he can live in chaos—it’s just personal preference!
I could yell, demand, and criticize him for it, but I’ve learned that doesn’t get us anywhere. Instead, I say something such as, “I feel annoyed about the dishes left on the coffee table. I feel like I can't relax with them sitting here. I need you to please put them in the dishwasher.”
When I approach him in a calm tone of voice (which takes practice, especially when I’m annoyed), he usually says he’s sorry, and even that he appreciates me not getting mad about it. I also find it’s helpful to communicate a timeline of when I expect him to clean up. No one is a mind reader, so you have to put your expectations out there, negotiate, and agree upon them.
Now it’s your turn! Bring to mind some of your perpetual problems. Using this three-step communication approach, imagine addressing these issues in a new, softer way. Your job is to deliver this information so that your partner can hear, understand and empathize with your emotional experience.
When you focus on your emotions about the topic at hand and clearly identify how your partner can help, he or she can engage with you without being defensive, critical, or withdrawing. This is when productive conversation and compromise happens.
To secure a successful marriage, you should also learn when are the best times to bring up an issue. Timing is everything.
If I approach my husband about the dirty dishes when he just gets home from work and is stressed, hungry, and tired, I get a much different response than if his physiological needs have been met and we are enjoying each other’s company.
Often times, couples bring up issues when they are already heated and frustrated. My rule is that if you can’t talk to your partner in a calm voice because you’re yelling or crying, then you’re not ready to have the conversation.
It’s ok to take a time out to cool off and collect yourself, but you need to communicate clearly to your partner that this is important to you and you plan to come back to talk about it. The last thing you want is for your partner to think you’re blowing off the issue at hand—this leads right back to the four horsemen habits!
Your goal during these perpetual problems is to stop engaging in hurtful ways of communicating, and to increase the positive interactions, such as remaining open to influence, validating your partner, empathizing with his or her emotions, and supporting each other.
Ultimately, you both care about each other’s happiness—that’s why you’re getting married, right? Remember, you’re on the same team!
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