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Updated: Aug 19, 2021

How should you and I approach the sticky situations that occur in marriages to somehow get to a marvellous marriage? In any relationship, marriage, friendship or family, there are plenty of opportunities for conflict to occur. Misunderstandings from miscommunication provide fodder for people problems.

Let’s look first at some specific predictors of problems in marriage and a general strategy to help get us out of the muddy mire of misunderstandings. The Gottman Institute run by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, have researched marriage for decades and suggest that the four main problem behaviours between couples that lead to divorce are: criticism, defending, stonewalling and the worst of the bad⸺ contempt. These each fuel the fires of feuds and need to be put out quickly as they can trigger really troublesome reactions in others that will lead to couple breakdown. We may do one or more of these at times in our close relationships but when they are repetitive, they erode trust, the building block of marriage.

Here is an example from my own life: I might feel rejected or unloved by critical or contemptuous words from my husband, so firstly I need to communicate what I’m feeling. If I don’t, things could escalate into a passive aggressive cycle, where I withdraw then explode at the least provocation. So to prevent this happening, I could say to my husband something like: ‘I feel rejected by those critical words spoken to me, and I become unhappy and depressed—what I really want when I’m feeling this way is to be shown understanding and care.’ In this statement, I have owned my feelings, not used the finger-pointing word ‘you’ but still have identified the offending behaviour and asked for what I need. This should hopefully work but if it doesn’t then restating it in other ways until we're heard, whilst keeping calm, could be helpful.

In addition to the above assertive statement, resolving conflict strategies once begun in those unfortunate problematic behaviours are some ways to think and act are as follows:

1. Gain a new perspective by seeing the situation from the other person’s point of view; there are always two sides to everything.

2. Listen actively to the other by being a part of the conversation, checking your understanding and using positive eye contact and body language.

3. Watch out for getting angry. If you tend to do this, stop, slow down your breathing to minimise stress then reduce the intensity and volume of your response.

4. Forgive (seven times seventy if you have to, see Matthew 18:22). Remember that often people have no idea that their words or actions are crippling to us. Forgiveness is the way to relieve tension in order to go forward into positive communication and understanding, whereas without it, mutual regard is almost impossible. [1]

Now that you have the strategies, let’s look a bit more closely at the divorce predictors

that the Gottmans describe.

Criticism: Problems in everyday life occur but sometimes people see others as the problem, rather than seeing the problem being the problem. When this is used in a relationship, it sounds like: ‘I wouldn’t be here or this wouldn’t be happening if you didn’t do this, in other words, it’s your fault!’ Men can use this when feeling guilty but this isn’t only owned just by them, we women can really get into this behaviour too. This is destructive because it makes others feel guilty.

Defence: None of us want to take ownership for the problems so we defend our right to be right and defend what we did. ‘I did so-and-so because of the traffic, the other drivers, your nagging, etc etc.’ In other words, ‘it’s not my fault!'

Stonewalling: This is either not answering, disappearing or stalling which are all examples of stonewalling. It avoids taking any responsibility and leaves others feeling crippled, belittled, neglected and alone.

Contempt: This is the height of bad relationship behaviours in terms of divorce predictors. It sounds like this: ‘How would you know’; ‘You can’t do that because you just aren’t cut out for that sort of expertise, etc etc’; ‘You aren’t that clever’. This attitude is psychologically cruel.

It’s time to take stock in your life to look out for any of these behaviours. Then talk with God and preferably a godly mentor, coach or pastor and begin to change your thoughts and actions towards those others who matter to you. On the other hand if you are having these done to you, I suggest prayer, seek godly help and prepare to have those assertive but hard conversations that own your feelings to get some changes occurring.

‘Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.’ 1 Corinthians 1:10 NKJV

God bless, Peta

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[1] B. & K. Ryan, (2021): Real life: Real marriage—Guide to a thriving marriage course notes, Focus on the Family, Australia.

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