Before getting married (heck, before getting engaged, I like to cover my bases and be prepared…) I have read everything I could find on having a successful relationship. I know all about the way to handle conflict respectfully, but it just wouldn’t work. I am feisty and fiery and can scream a building down. It’s when I give the silent treatment that one should begin to worry. I really struggled to put into practice what seemed to be the consensus. Don’t use “you” sentences, but tell the other person how their actions make you feel etc. I was at the point of just packing up my tent and give up on the prospect of ever succeeding at maintaining a relationship when I read Dr Gottman’s “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work“.
That book has revolutionised the way I looked at the whole thing. He swims against the current of this consensus that the only way to handle conflict healthily is a sterilised discussion that I’ll be shocked to see happen in real life (if you are such a person, please tell me your secret to not having emotions). I could do the accepted right way if I was able to go to sleep and address the conflict rested, fed and without time to mull over it and increase the negativity, but another accepted dogma is that you should never go to sleep on an argument so I thought I was doomed. Dr Gottman’s research, however, has shown that it isn’t how you raise your voice and whether you make accusations, but it is 4 specific attitudes that can predict divorce even in the most mild-mannered of couples.
The so-called Four Horsemen (in reference to the Book of Revelation) are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. You can read more about them in this article from the Gottman Institute. While I am by no means perfect in avoiding criticism entirely, I am aware of it and quick to address my attitude to legitimate complaints, asking for forgiveness when I overstep the mark in the way I phrase it. It’s never taking hold of the situation and brewing under the surface. In many cases, it really is just me being hangry, and I have rushed to confession after particularly bad fights, as grace is my best bet on the long-term success of this operation.
What strikes me most about these “four horsemen” is the fact they all show a lack of respect underpinning them, and that respect is the antidote to the first of them starting an escalating sequence of damaging behaviour. Contempt, while the most obvious, isn’t the only one when you don’t respect your partner. When you respect your partner, you have reasons to take measures to contain the damage: you may say something more hurtful than you would like, but you don’t want to hurt the other person and you will take action to make up for it. It remains a slip in standard in what is otherwise a good relationship. And the other person, who knows your respect for them, should be more willing to forgive and stop defensiveness in its tracks (another trait that I inherited from my parents’ broken relationship…).
The antidote to criticism is very close to the accepted way to deal with conflict healthily, but what makes Dr Gottman stand out from the rest of his field is that he accepts humans aren’t robots and he doesn’t paint conflicts that start on bad footing as dooming the couple. It’s easy enough to make an “I feel” statement when it isn’t a heat of the moment comment at a time of anger, an emotion so human Our Blessed Lord was angry at the Pharisees many times, and once even to the point of minor violence (Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-18). If that’s not a behaviour we learnt growing up, it’s worth being intentional about learning it now. Adopting healthy habits in conflict when they are complaint brought to the table in a quiet situation can also serve as a shield against contempt and defensiveness when we slip up in a heated situation. You know that your partner loves and respects you and that this conflict is temporary.
That’s another thing that always comes up in relationship advice, don’t bring up more issues and/or past issues when dealing with conflict. Very tempting to do, but easier to resist from a basis of respect, because you don’t feel as much the need to wound or win the argument. Respect means you don’t see each other as enemies fighting over something that can only have one winner and one loser, but as partners who are passionate about finding a mutually beneficial resolution to a problem that affects both. No matter how many neighbours can hear you, if you move from a place of respect the conflict can be resolved and you’re not doomed to walk into a divorce lawyer’s office.
Today’s blog post has been part of the Love Blog Challenge 2020 on the subject “Respect”. Find the rest of the series here
Meet your co-hosts:
Brita of BelleBrita
Brita Long is the pink and sparkly personality behind the Christian feminist lifestyle blog, Belle Brita. On her blog and social media, you’ll discover more than authentic storytelling–she’s brutally honest about pursuing a fulfilling and joyful life even with Crohn’s Disease and depression.
Laura of Do Five Things A Day
Laura is a part-time artist hoping to go full time some day. She has a little black bucket list book filled with adventures. She writes with the hope to inspire. She’s known to be quite the workaholic sometimes. She’s an INTJ- A and she believes a cup of hot tea can solve almost anything. She embraces perseverance. She’s spent a lot of time emerged in self-discovery practices over the last several years, and finds she is still learning as she goes. She is here in the blogging world because she believes the buzz about self-care, wellness, and self-love needs to be heard. You can also find her writing over at www.blogfivebiz.com chatting about blogging and business stuff.