We all know couples who seem to bicker and spar all the time. Maybe you’re even part of a couple like that yourself.
Does constant conflict mean that a marriage is in trouble? My answer here might surprise you.
Through my work with many, many couples, I’ve seen that the frequency of your arguments with your spouse is much less important than the way you fight.
In fact, Dr. John Gottman, one of the leading researchers on marital happiness, says that how you manage conflict in your relationship is the most important factor in determining whether you stay married.
Gottman isn’t saying that your goal should be a conflict-free marriage. And neither am I. All couples disagree from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When you sweep issues under the rug in hopes of avoiding an argument, that just breeds resentment and hurts your relationship in the long run. Venting complaints in a constructive way clears the air and strengthens your bond.
So how do you do that?
Avoid the ‘Four Horsemen’
First, you have to steer clear of a few behaviors that can make conflicts devastating to your marriage. Gottman refers to these as the “Four Horsemen” because their constant presence in a relationship accurately identifies couples most likely to end up divorced. We all slip into these behaviors sometimes, but beware of letting them become a pattern when you argue with your spouse.
- Defensiveness. Conflict becomes toxic when partners deny responsibility, make excuses or counterattack.
- Criticism. Don’t attack your spouse’s personality or character; instead, stay focused on the specific problem.
- Stonewalling. Some people shut down in a conflict because they are trying not to “make things worse.” Ironically, stonewalling often has the opposite effect.
- Contempt. Showing contempt is the absolute worst thing you can do during an argument with your spouse. Insulting your husband in front of others, rolling your eyes and mocking can all quickly damage your relationship.
Follow the Rules for Fighting Fair
Now that you know the “danger zones” to avoid during your next argument, here are a few tips to strengthen your bond, even when you’re in conflict:
- Time it right. Don’t bring up issues when you are tired, irritated or feel like you can’t control yourself — or when you can tell that your husband is experiencing one of those states.
- Get close. Pause, hold hands and make eye contact when you’re disagreeing. When you are in touch with the humanity of your partner, you’ll be less likely to hurt each other.
- Choose your words wisely. The first few moments of your interaction set the tone for what comes next. You know your husband better than anyone else does — which means you probably know exactly what to say to wound him deeply. No matter how angry you are, exercise restraint and remember that your words have power. A few mean-spirited words in the heat of the moment can haunt your relationship for a long time.
- Pause. Ask for time to calm down if you need it, but keep in mind that you do still need to come back and address the issue.
If you’re too upset during your next argument to recall anything else from this article, just remember that the key word is “respect.” When you maintain respect with each other during a conflict, you keep your relationship on solid ground. If you’d like more advice on fighting fair in your relationship, you will find an entire chapter devoted to the topic in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
One single word can be the source of many different troubles in marriage: Expectations.
We all have them. There’s no way to avoid them. But it’s how we handle them that can make or break our marriages.
What kind of expectations do you have of your husband? Is he meeting them, or are you constantly disappointed? if you’re often feeling let down or resentful, it’s important to take a closer look at your expectations.
“Shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” provide clues that expectations are present. Do any of these “shoulds” sound familiar?
- He should want to make me happy.
- I shouldn’t have to tell him what I need. He should be able to see it.
- He should want to be a better man.
- He should take care of me when I’m tired or sick.
- He should tell me that he thinks I’m beautiful.
- He should thank me for all the work I do.
- He should want to spend his spare time with me.
- We should share the household tasks 50/50.
- We shouldn’t have to work so hard at being in love.
- He should tell me what he’s thinking and feeling without my constantly having to ask him.
Expectations can cause problems if you’re not careful. When expectations are not clearly communicated or they are unrealistic, the marriage can suffer.
It’s easy to cling to the idea that our spouses should “just know” what we expect of them. You might think your husband should automatically understand how you want your birthday celebrated, tune into your emotions when you give a hint of distress, or jump in with extra help when you’re busy with the kids. When he doesn’t, it’s easy to feel very hurt and assume he doesn’t care.
Instead of complaining, being sarcastic, dropping clues, or shutting your husband out, be sure to use these strategies:
- Ask for what you need. Therapist and relationships expert Terrence Real says, “You have no right to complain about not getting what you never asked for.” If you don’t communicate your expectations, there’s a chance your husband doesn’t know how important they are to you — which makes him less likely to act in the way you want him to. Don’t resort to ineffective ways of communicating to make it known how dissatisfied you are. Instead, own your needs and your responsibility to communicate them. Be direct, be respectful, and be ready to negotiate for what you need.
- Be realistic. A recent study found that high expectations can actually lead to a more satisfying marriage, but only when those expectations can actually be met. Are your expectations based on the husband you actually married or the one you wish you’d married? Is he capable of doing what you’re expecting of him? For example, if he grew up in a family where no one talks about feelings, how likely is it that he will effusively and automatically tell you about what’s going on with him emotionally? Or, if he’s always been someone who lives in the moment, what are the odds that he will be planning the details of your future together? Set your expectations in line with what’s most likely to happen, not what you wish would happen.
- Ease up. Remember to cut each other some slack on your expectations, especially when you’re stressed. Sometimes temporary barriers such as a work deadline, an illness, or too little time together can make it unlikely that expectation can be met at that time.
Keeping your marriage healthy amid the demands of everyday life takes constant maintenance, communication and compassion. Most of all, it requires being realistic. Make sure your expectations fit the person you’re married to and the reality of your lives together so you can set your marriage up for success, not failure.
I don’t know you, but I’m willing to bet that both you and your husband have an extramarital involvement that’s affecting your relationship.
I’m not talking about other people (or at least I hope that’s not happening!). I’m talking about your phones.
There’s even a name now for ignoring your partner so you can pay attention to your phone: Pphubbing (partner phone snubbing).
And researchers are starting to look at the effect of pphubbing on relationships. Two marketing professors from Baylor University published a study on the phenomenon last fall.
“What we discovered was that when someone perceived that their partner phubbed them, this created conflict and led to lower levels of reported relationship satisfaction,” James A. Roberts, one of the researchers, explained in a news release about the study. “These lower levels of relationship satisfaction, in turn, led to lower levels of life satisfaction and, ultimately, higher levels of depression.”
As Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT and the author of Alone Together put it in a 2012 TED Talk, we’re prone to using technology to hide from each other or keep each other at arm’s length.
So how can you keep your phone from coming between you and your spouse?
First, pay attention to whether you’re engaging in any of the behaviors that participants in the Baylor study identified as pphubbing:
- Placing your cell phone where you can see it or keeping it in your hand when you’re with your partner.
- Glancing at your cell phone when you’re talking with your partner.
- Checking your cell phone during lulls in conversation with your partner.
See what happens when you commit to avoiding those behaviors and being more present with your partner.
To keep your phone use from affecting your relationship, you may also have to look beyond your personal habits. It’s not your imagination that demands on our time are greater than ever before — and our employers’ constant access to us via our phones is part of the reason why. If it’s possible in your work situation, try to set some stronger boundaries. For example, let colleagues know that they should call you instead of texting or emailing if something urgent comes up so that you won’t feel compelled to keep checking your messages. You could even work together with your colleagues to try to change your office’s communication culture so that all of you can get more restorative time away from work.
Finally, remember that your phone isn’t inherently good or bad for your relationship. It all comes down to how you use it. So as you look for ways to curb your pphubbing behaviors, also look for ways to use technology to enhance communication with your partner. In our busy lives, it’s easy for couples to put deeper communication on the back burner as your conversations become limited to what needs to get done that day (“I have a late meeting, so you’ll need to pick up the kids after soccer — oh, and did you call the bank like we talked about?”). Using technology to add some moments of connection — for example, sending a sweet (or sexy!) text message or sharing an article you know your husband will like with him on Facebook — doesn’t take much time but has big payoffs on the overall health of your relationship.
We get the most from our relationships we give our full attention to each other. Don’t let the siren’s call of your phone imperil that. You’ll find more ideas on staying connected in our busy lives in my book Strong Women, Strong Love. You can even read it on your phone — just not while your partner is talking with you
Uh-oh. It’s happened. Your husband has crossed one of the non-negotiable lines with you. He’s shown disrespect in a way you just won’t tolerate, whether that’s cursing at you, raising his voice in public, or another boundary-pushing behavior.
What do you do now?
Your first instinct when your husband crosses the line might be to strike back or run off. If you can, don’t do either one of these things. Try a more measured approach that is actually more effective in the moment and better for your relationship in the long term:
- Express your boundary calmly and clearly.
- Let him know you expect him to do better.
- Move on.
Before you do anything, take a deep breath and see if you can get calm and clear headed. Otherwise, your message won’t be as powerful.
When you’re ready, look your husband in the eye and let him know that the behavior he’s engaging in is one you absolutely will not tolerate: “Cursing at me under any circumstances is completely unacceptable. I would never do that to you.” Things will probably be a little intense during this initial confrontation because you are drawing a crystal clear boundary. Be calm, firm, and clear.
Next, set a positive expectation. Tell your husband that you expect better from him. You may want to say something like “I know you are better than that” or “That wasn’t the guy I married.” Choose words that work for your situation and your relationship, but hold open the possibility that he can be more respectful.
Then, move on, and give him some space. You want to be short, sweet, and to the point. Lengthy explanations usually just confuse the issue.
With a little time and space to reflect, most men will eventually feel sorry for crossing the line. If your husband sincerely apologizes, forgive him, but keep a watchful eye until you’re convinced he will not cross the boundary again.
If your husband shows no remorse about crossing the line, or worse, acts self-righteous about it, you may have a bigger problem on your hands. Although we are talking here about actions that go beyond everyday slip-ups, more dire and complex behaviors like addiction and physical or emotional abuse are good reasons for seeking professional assistance.
If you tend to fear conflict, all of this can be a little scary to undertake — even though you know in your gut that it’s the right thing to do. It may help to remember that taking a stand is ultimately the best thing for your relationship and for establishing the baseline for respect. Disrespect is something that simply cannot take root in your relationship if you want it to remain healthy. Research clearly shows that contempt is the No. 1 predictor of divorce.
A firm, clear and quick response can help keep problems from escalating when your husband crosses a line. You can learn more about constructive ways to argue or deal with trouble spots in your relationship in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
If you’ve made the resolution to strengthen your relationship this year, I have some good news. There’s a way to improve your marriage that’s confirmed by research.
And it’s extremely simple.
And it takes only a few minutes per year.
Researcher Eli J. Finkel of Northwestern University and his colleagues discovered “The Marriage Hack” when they were studying marital satisfaction. Finkel talked about the magic of the Marriage Hack at TEDxUChicago. (You can watch his talk in the video above.)
Couples in the study conducted by Finkel and his colleagues filled out questionnaires about their marriages every four months for two years. In the second year of the study, half of the couples did The Marriage Hack. Their questionnaires included these additional writing exercises:
- Participants wrote about the most recent conflict in their marriage from the viewpoint of an objective third party who wants the best for everyone.
- They were then asked to write about any obstacles they might face in trying to take on this outside perspective.
- Finally, they wrote about ways they could overcome those obstacles.
The exercise took just seven minutes, and couples did the exercise three times over the course of the year.
Those 21 minutes had a pretty amazing payoff.
Normally, Finkel says in his TEDx Talk, marital satisfaction declines over time. That’s what happened to all the couples in the study during the first year.And, sadly, it’s what continued to happen to the couples who didn’t do the seven-minute writing exercise in the second year, But for the couples who did the writing exercise, the decline in marital satisfaction stopped.
That’s not because they reduced the number of conflicts in their marriage. What made the difference is that the Marriage Hack writing exercise helped them handle those conflicts more constructively. The payoff happened in every aspect of their marriages —trust, intimacy, even sexual passion. And study participants who practiced the Marriage Hack writing exercise reported feeling less stressed and depressed, and happier overall.
So why is this?
When we fight with our spouses, we get caught up in our own perspective, Finkel says. We focus on all the things we are doing right and even start to feel self-righteous. Chances are, if you’re feeling totally correct and vindicated, and your spouse is feeling the same way about his viewpoint, that’s the recipe for a destructive conflict.
The Marriage Hack writing exercise reminds us of the bigger picture. When we make it a habit to get off our high horse and look at conflict through a different lens, we can defuse anger and build understanding and empathy.
So do you have 21 minutes to strengthen your marriage this year? Happy 2016 and happy Marriage Hacking!
Do you remember how upset you got the last time you felt your husband was ignoring you or didn’t seem to care about your needs? Did you calmly ask for what you needed? Or, did you scream at him or give him the cold shoulder?
When someone we love isn’t there for us, it can be very distressing. And when it’s the person we’ve chosen to spend our lives with, it can feel downright scary. Like it or not, we are all hardwired for connection. We literally cannot survive on our own. This means depending on each other is not a choice, even if our society incorrectly convinces us we’re weak if we need anyone.
I recently attended a fabulous conference about Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), a type of marriage therapy developed by Dr. Sue Johnson. Sue is one of the leading marriage researchers in the world and says we should accept our need for each other and learn how to get closer in our most important relationships. She uses the science on love and attachment to help people become warmer, more genuine, and present with their partner.
If you think you might be interested in learning more about EFT, I would recommend reading Sue Johnson’s wonderful book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love or her checking out her website: DrSueJohnson.com. If you’d prefer a summary of some of the core ideas, keep reading.
Importance of Close Relationships
EFT draws on the large body of research on human attachment and recognizes that close relationship are essential to our well being. Think about some of these interesting facts research has already discovered about love:
- We are hardwired to connect. We are bonding mammals, so we literally die without connection to others. Love is a force that keeps us close to each other, thereby supporting our very survival.
- For our physical and mental health, we need to feel secure, not just know it. We know when we have emotional security because we feel it at a gut level.
- Secure connections with our loved one are linked to lower rates of heart disease, increased immune system functioning, and decreased depression.
- When we truly feel secure and safe in our relationship(s), we are also naturally calmer, clearer in our thinking, and much more empathetic, curious, and open.
- The single largest threat to us emotionally is anything that jeopardizes our sense of belonging. We use each other to stay calm and steady, so when something significant goes wrong in an important relationship, we will go into a state of panic at a very deep level.
- Being alone is the scariest and most dangerous thing that can happen to a person. Because we’re wired to keep others close to us, our bodies literally experience pain when are isolated, left out, or lose an important relationship. Heartbreak is a real thing.
- Research shows that criticism and other hurtful words actually cause us physical harm. The same areas in the brain light up on a brain scan in response to physical or emotional pain.
Strategies for Connection
So what does all this have to do with you and your husband? In a society where people have fewer and fewer connections, a marriage becomes a very important part of your well being. How your husband responds when you need him carries a great deal of weight. When you reach out to your partner, sometimes he will respond, and sometimes he won’t. By reaching out, Sue Johnson says, what we’re really asking our partner is:
- Can I count on you?
- Are you here for me?
- Will you respond when I need, when I call?
- Do I matter to you?
- Am I valued and accepted by you?
- Do you need me, rely on me?
If you have a husband that is usually responsive, an occasional lapse may annoy you, but not much more. If, however, you’re truly afraid that the answer to these questions is “no,” you’ll feel insecure and will probably do one of the following:
1. Protest. You react to his disconnection by freaking out, demanding, or pushing. You may also complain, criticize or blame. Unfortunately, these behaviors tend to push any person even further away.
2. Withdraw. You tell yourself that you don’t need him anyway. Inside, you’re not at all at peace or happy about this. In fact, you feel resigned and hopeless. You might find other ways of numbing or escaping these painful feelings, such as staying incredibly busy, spending all your time with the kids, surfing the net, eating or exercising too much, or using alcohol or drugs.
EFT has identified three common relationship patterns that couples get stuck in when they feel disconnected:
1. Protest Polka. I protest your disconnection, and you withdraw. (“I know you don’t care about me any more!”) Your withdrawal makes me more insecure, so I protest louder (“You’re never going to change!) and you withdraw further. This pattern is the most common one leading to divorce.
2. Find the Bad Guy. I protest your distance (“You don’t even kiss me when you get home!”), and you protest mine (“When was the last time you actually asked me how I’m doing?”). We try to pin the blame for the disconnection on each other and end up driving each other further away.
3. Freeze and Flea. We both give up on fighting for the connection and retreat because we think it’s safer. This is nothing but a recipe for tremendous loneliness.
The hard thing to see in these relationship dances is that couples are actually wanting emotional connection, but creating more distance. We all need our partner to see us, tune into how we’re really doing, and love us through hard times. We just may not be so great at asking for connection in ways that work very well.
So, what can you do to increase the odds of keeping your partner close? Here are a few tips out of the EFT approach to try:
• Be emotionally present. Emotional presence is the key to connection. Direct face-to-face contact without electronic devices, interruptions, or distractions is essential. You must show up in both body and mind. You don’t have to always make huge amounts of time for each other, but when you are interacting, make sure you’re really genuinely present and doing your best to connect. Otherwise, the connection with you will be no different from connection with a stranger. But since you’re not a stranger, being disconnected from you will probably upset your partner.
• Make your relationship a priority. You have to be very intentional and make your relationship a priority if you want to keep your marriage strong. Our society does little to support relationships, so you have to decide yours is important and work on staying connected emotionally.
• Move toward each other. When either of you are struggling, try to reach out, rather than being hurtful or pulling away. Talk about what’s really going on with you without casting blame. If you value your partner, he’s much more likely to listen to you.
• Be positive. Consistently acknowledge, support, and appreciate your partner, remembering how bad you feel when you’re not receiving these things yourself.