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Archive for the ‘Conflict’ Category

This One Thing is the Biggest Predictor of Divorce

SOURCE: Eva Van Prooyen/The Gottman Institute

You may know Dr. John Gottman as “the guy that can predict divorce with over 90% accuracy.” His life’s work on marital stability and divorce prediction has been well documented in the national media, and it was even featured in the #1 bestseller Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

After watching thousands of couples argue in his lab, he was able to identify specific negative communication patterns that predict divorce. He called them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and they are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Contempt is the most destructive of The Four Horsemen because it conveys, “I’m better than you. I don’t respect you.” It’s so destructive, in fact, that couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness than couples who are not contemptuous of each other. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.

Treating others with disrespect and mocking them with sarcasm are forms of contempt. So are hostile humor, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling and sneering.

In his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Dr. Gottman notes:

When contempt begins to overwhelm your relationship you tend to forget entirely your partner’s positive qualities, at least while you’re feeling upset. You can’t remember a single positive quality or act. This immediate decay of admiration is an important reason why contempt ought to be banned from marital interactions.

Contempt erodes the bond that holds a couple securely together. It’s impossible to build connection when your relationship is deprived of respect.

What does contempt look like?

Let me introduce you to a couple from my practice. After five years together, Chris and Mark (names changed for anonymity) find their marriage in a tailspin. Chris feels dismissed, shamed, and blamed by Mark.

“I can’t believe you think it’s okay to speak to me the way you do. The things you say to me make me feel awful. It’s like you constantly think I’m a dumbass,” Chris says in my office.

“What? I’m just stating facts,” justifies Mark while rolling his eyes.

“Well, the things you say are hurtful. What’s the point?” asks Chris.

“I’m constantly disappointed by things you say and do. Your logic doesn’t make sense to me,” says Mark. His unwillingness to be influenced or take responsibility for himself is unshakeable.

“If I spoke to you in the same way, you would lose your mind,” says Chris.

“Whatever,” Mark mumbles.

Chris has stopped being affectionate towards Mark, and Mark mostly ignores her complaints at this point. Contempt has totally taken over their relationship.

The antidote to contempt

Here’s the good news. Dr. Gottman’s ability to predict divorce is contingent on behaviors not changing over time. You can reverse a pattern of contempt in your relationship before it’s too late. The antidote lies in building fondness and admiration.

Dr. Gottman discovered that the best way to measure fondness and admiration is to ask couples about their past. How did they meet? What were their first impressions of each other?

If a relationship is in crisis, partners are unlikely to elicit much praise by talking about the current state of affairs. Talking about the happy events of the past, however, helps many couples reconnect.

If a couple can revive their fondness and admiration for each other, they are more likely to approach conflict resolution as a team, and the growth of their sense of “we-ness” will keep them as connected as they felt when they first met.

I witness a glimmer of hope when I ask couples how they fell in love. Partners talk about how attractive they thought their partner was. How funny they were. How nervous and excited they felt around each other.

Despite all the pain and negative feelings that have accumulated over years, there is still an ember of friendship. The key is to fan that ember back into flames, and the best way to do this is by creating a culture of appreciation and respect in the relationship.

Dr. Gottman teaches couples to look at their partner through rose-colored glasses. Instead of trying to catch them doing something wrong, catch them doing something right and appreciate them for it. Even the little things. I like how you did your hair today. Thank you for getting my favorite ice cream. I appreciate you vacuuming without me asking you to.

Identifying contempt is the first step towards getting your relationship back on track. If you and your partner need a little extra help, you may benefit from couples counseling.

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Be the Change You Wish to See in Your Relationship

SOURCE:  Terry Gaspard/Gottman Institute

Ben and Alicia are both waiting for the other person to change. I see it all the time in my private practice.

“I’ve been miserable for years,” complains Ben. “I’ve asked Alicia to give me space, but things don’t appear to be changing. It feels like I can’t breathe.”

“Ben has his friends over every weekend,” Alicia reflects. “He doesn’t consider my needs and I feel so alone.”

If you want your partner to change, start by accepting them for who they are. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman says, “People can change only if they feel that they are basically liked and accepted the way they are. When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated they are unable to change. Instead, they feel under siege and dig in to protect themselves.”

Instead of criticizing your partner, remind yourself of all of the things you appreciate about them, and share those things with them. Be genuinely interested in learning about why they see or do something differently than you, and be open to respecting and even celebrating what makes each of you unique.

Of course, there are some things that should never be tolerated in a relationship, like abuse, addiction, or infidelity. These behaviors should be addressed in a loving and direct way with the help of a professional. Even in those cases, it is possible to accept the person even if you do not accept their behavior.

Vulnerability and intimacy go hand in hand

What Ben and Alicia don’t realize is that they aren’t really arguing about the amount of time they spend together. The underlying issue in their marriage is that neither partner is able to express their needs in a non-blameful way.

They had never discussed what alone time and time together meant to each of them. By talking about this in my office, Ben finally understood Alicia’s fear of being alone. His understanding led him to carve out time to spend together on the weekends.

Couples seeking a deeper emotional connection need to understand that vulnerability and intimacy go hand in hand. In other words, intimacy can only occur when partners are vulnerable enough to share their deepest hopes, fears, and dreams without judgement.

Change starts with you

Do you spend more time questioning your partner’s words or actions than examining your own? Blaming your partner can feel good in the moment, but it’s dangerous because it can lead to anger and resentment.

Conflict is not a bad thing in relationships. After watching thousands of couples in his lab for over 40 years, Dr. Gottman discovered a simple truth: all couples argue. The difference between the couples that stay together and the ones who divorce is the way they repair after conflict. The Masters of relationships take responsibility for their role in the issue and change their own behavior.

Dr. Gottman explains, “The couples that don’t repair those hurts end up with festering wounds that grow bigger day by day, the month, and the year until they finally break the couple apart. Repair is absolutely crucial in any kind of relationship, particularly intimate relationships.”

Here are four things you can do instead of trying to change your partner that can change your relationship for the better.

1. Be a better partner
Many people stay in bad relationships with the desire to change their partner. In Marriage Rules, Dr. Harriet Lerner writes, “If you don’t change your part in a stuck pattern, no change will occur. Change comes from the bottom up: that is from the person who is in the most pain, or who has the least power, or who has lost or compromised too much in the relationship.”

2. Focus on the issues at hand
When you focus on changing your partner, you miss the opportunity to work together to come up with a solution. You’re no longer on the same team. Instead, focus on the issues at hand to meet both of your needs.

Anger is usually a symptom of underlying hurt, fear, and frustration, so speak in I statements and focus on expressing your feelings in a vulnerable way that invites your partner to understand your pain, rather than pushes them away.

3. Take responsibility
We are responsible for how our words and actions make our partner feel. Apologize to your partner by taking responsibility for the problem, even just a small piece, and this will validate their feelings, promote forgiveness, and allow you both to move on.

4. Complain without blame
In Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Dr. Gottman explains that criticizing your partner is one of The Four Horsemen that predicts divorce. It is different from offering a critique or voicing a complaint. A criticism attacks the core of a person’s character while a complaint focuses on a specific behavior.

Successful couples remember to give each other the benefit of the doubt and consider that they are both doing the best they can. In The Science of Trust, Dr. Gottman advices couples to talk about their feelings in terms of a positive need, instead of what they do not need. By being good friends, you can build a healthy bond that will help you repair and navigate challenging moments together.

There is a saying to be the change you wish to see in the world. Gandhi advises us, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” I believe this to be true in relationships as well.

Instead of trying to change your partner, be the change you wish to see in your relationship.

Strengthen Your Relationship Roots

SOURCE:  Prepare-Enrich

After being gone almost all day I arrived at home at about 4:00pm.  The door we use to enter our house leads to the kitchen and the first thing I saw was a counter full of dishes.

My frustration levels grew instantaneously.

My heart started beating faster.

Angry emotions gripped me.

I thought, “I have been gone all day.  My husband and kids have been home all day and they left all their breakfast and lunch dishes for me to do!  How am I to cook supper with no counter space?”  I proceeded to walk into the living room and complain to my husband in front of the kids about why he didn’t do the dishes and why he left them for me to do.

Bad choice.

As you can imagine the rest of that evening was not harmonious, nor were the next few days as my husband hardly spoke to me.  This incident was a tipping point.  Brad was feeling falsely accused in front of the kids.  He thought he had been this great dad, spending the day with the kids and giving them his full attention and I came home and immediately complained about how he spent the day.  I was feeling taking advantage of.  We both needed to learn a new way to communicate our feelings.

Later that week, Brad gave me a piece of paper with three life rules, some pertaining to this instance and some pertaining to other struggles we were having.

 

While this is not a fond memory for us, it forced us to form new habits and new understandings, new relationship roots.  We are not perfect, but we seek to understand each other – not accuse each other, to talk about our frustrations with each other in private, to always speak well of each other in front of others, and to forgive each other. It was hard, yet we are better today because of it.

What relationship roots are you and your partner growing?

  • Are you allowing the tough times in your relationship to grow deep roots, shallow roots or no roots?
  • Roots need room for water to flow in and out.  Are you giving and receiving forgiveness to keep communication flowing?
  • Are you growing new roots by seeking different ways of communicating or spending time together?
  • What are you doing to listen to the old roots – the lessons you have already learned, the lessons that provide structural support to your relationship?

6 Ways To Argue And Not End Up Divorced

SOURCE:   Brittany Wong/The Huffington Post

Marriage counselors share how to argue the smart way.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to argue in a relationship. To have an effective argument, both partners need to show up and be ready to tackle the issues like grown ups. If either spouse is too wound up to talk rationally, conflict resolution isn’t likely to happen.

What else do couples need to know if they want to argue effectively? Below, couples counselors share six tips on everything from having the right tone to timing the fight. (Forget what you heard before, you can totally go to bed angry.)

How you start a conversation is likely how it will end. When you’re peeved about something your spouse did (or didn’t do), resist the urge to rant and instead use what researcher and psychologist John Gottman calls a “softened start-up.

In other words, slowly ease into the conversation with a calm, respectful tone, explained Leslie Petruk, a counselor and director of The Stone Center for Counseling and Leadership in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“If you begin the conversation with an angry attack, that is likely how it will end,” she said. “If you enter it with curiosity and compassion, the dialogue is much more likely to end that way as well,” she said.

Stop looking at your marital fights as something to win or lose. Instead, try your hardest to frame your argument as a healthy conversation between two deeply committed, mature partners, said Amy Kipp, a couples and family therapist in San Antonio, Texas.

“Instead of looking at it as a conflict, view the argument as a problem you are working on together. This allows more room for a resolution that meets the needs of everyone,” she said. “Being constantly at odds with your partner creates a you-against-me dynamic. Conversely, being able to view an issue as one that you are jointly solving creates feelings of connection and teamwork.”

Instead of stonewalling or shrugging off your spouse, try to acknowledge what they’re feelings, said Amanda Deverich, a marriage and family therapist in Williamsburg, Virginia. Simply saying “I can see why you feel that way….” or “it makes sense you thought that…” goes a very long way when you’re trying to de-escalate your emotions.

“Validating your spouse’s feelings doesn’t mean you’re giving up your own truth, it just helps you reach a compromise,” Deverich explained before offering up an example.

“Let’s say you were supposed to look after the kids when you came back from work,” she said, noting you arrived home to do this at 7 p.m. “If your spouse remembers you saying you’d be home by 6 p.m. but you don’t recall saying that, you could validate it by saying, ‘I can see why you’d be frustrated if you thought that, given how many times I’ve been late in the past.”

It may be tempting to insist you said 7 p.m. on the dot, but ultimately, what’s the point?

“That will just culminate into a fight over facts, and while facts are important, they’re a lot less important than an apology, understanding and ultimately a change in behavior,” Deverich said.

If you need to go to bed angry because you have no energy left at midnight, by all means, go to bed angry. If you need to table the conversation because it’s 7 p.m. and you’re mega hangry, do it. What matters most is tackling your problem when you’re both in the right state of mind to see it through, said Zach Brittle, a a mental health counselor who works with couples in Seattle, Washington.

“It’s not about resolving. It’s about staying connected,” he said. “Repairing the problem can occur during or after an argument.”

When you’re ready to talk, Brittle said effective repair requires three things: “Accepting responsibility for how your choices affected your spouse, expressing empathy for the impact of those choices and articulating some new commitment to change,” he explained. “None of those steps require the words ‘I’m sorry’ but each of them is a kind of repair.”

Unless your spouse explicitly told you how they feel, don’t build a case against them in your head based on what you assume they’re thinking, Petruk said.

“Couples will often say, ‘I know he or she was thinking this or that…’ and put their own spin on their partners’ behaviors or words without checking it out first,” she said. “That’s the wrong way to go about it; you have to enter the conversation with questions rather than accusations. Check in and see if what you’ve been telling yourself is accurate.”

Unfortunate as it sounds, there are some issues that will likely play out for the lifespan of your relationship, Kipp said. Once you make your peace with that, you’ll be better equipped to navigate the smaller fights you have about these issues, she explained.

“There will be issues that are just going to be unsolvable, perpetual problems in your relationship,” she said. “If you are always on time and your partner is always running late, that is likely to be an ongoing source of frustration. But learning to talk about the problem respectfully and with acceptance for one another means that no one feels attacked.”

Marital Distress: Why Do I Have to Be the One to Change?

SOURCE:  Michele Weiner-Davis/The Huffington Post

You’re really mad at your partner. You’ve explained your point of view a million times. S/he never listens. You can’t believe that a person can be so insensitive. So, you wait. You’re convinced that eventually s/he will have to see the light; that you’re right and s/he’s wrong. In the meantime, there’s silence. But the tension is so thick in your house, you can cut it with a knife. You hate the distance, but there’s nothing you can do about it because you’re mad. You’re really mad.

You try to make yourself feel better by getting involved in other things. Sometimes this even works. But you wake up every morning facing the fact that nothing’s changed at all. A feeling of dissatisfaction permeates everything you do. From time to time, you ask yourself, “Is there something I should do differently,?” but you quickly dismiss this thought because you know that, in your heart of hearts, you’re not the one to blame. So the distance between you and your partner persists.

Does any of this sound familiar? Have you and your partner been so angry with each other that you’ve gone your separate ways and stopped interacting with each other? Have you convinced yourself that, until s/he initiates making up, there will be no peace in your house? If so, I have few things I want to tell you.

You are wasting precious energy holding on to your anger. It’s exhausting to feel resentment day in and day out. It takes a toll on your body and soul. It’s bad for your health and hard on your spirit. It’s awful for your relationship. Anger imprisons you. It casts a gray cloud over your days. It prevents you from feeling real joy in any part of your life. Each day you drown yourself in resentment is another day lost out of your life. What a waste!

I have worked with so many people who live in quiet desperation because they are utterly convinced that their way of seeing things is right and their partner’s is wrong. They spend a lifetime trying to get their partners to share their views. I hear, “I’ll change if s/he changes,” a philosophy that ultimately leads to a stalemate. There are many variations of this position. For example, “I’d be nicer to her, if she were nicer to me,” or “I’d be more physical and affectionate if he were more communicative with me,” or “I’d be more considerate and tell her about my plans if she wouldn’t hound me all the time about what I do.” You get the picture… “I’ll be different if you start being different first.” Trust me when I tell you that this can be a very, very long wait.

There’s a much better way to view things when you and your partner get stuck like this. I’ve been working with couples for years and I’ve learned a lot about how change occurs in relationships. It’s like a chain reaction. If one person changes, the other one does too. It really doesn’t matter who starts first. It’s simply a matter of tipping over the first domino. Change is reciprocal. Let me give you an example.

I worked with a woman who was very distressed about her husband’s long hours at work. She felt they spent very little time together as a couple and that he was of little help at home. This infuriated her. Every evening when he returned home from work, her anger got the best of her and she criticized him for bailing out on her. Inevitably, the evening would be ruined. The last thing he wanted to do after a long day at work was to deal with problems the moment he walked in the door. Although she understood this, she was so hurt and angry about his long absences that she felt her anger was justified. She wanted a suggestion from me about how to get her husband to be more attentive and loving. She was at her wit’s end.

I told her that I could completely understand why she was frustrated and that, if I were in her shoes, I would feel exactly the same way. However, I wondered if she could imagine how her husband might feel about her nightly barrage of complaints. “He probably wishes he didn’t have to come home,” she said. “Precisely,” I thought to myself, and I knew she was ready to switch gears. I suggested that she try an experiment. “Tonight when he comes home, surprise him with an affectionate greeting. Don’t complain, just tell him you’re happy to see him. Do something kind or thoughtful that you haven’t done in a long time…even if you don’t feel like it.” “You mean like fixing him his favorite meal or giving him a warm hug? I used to do that a lot.” “That’s exactly what I mean,” I told her, and we discussed other things she might do as well. She agreed to give it a try.

Two weeks later she returned to my office and told me about the results of her “experiment.”

“That first night after I talked with you I met him at the door and, without a word, gave him a huge hug. He looked astounded, but curious. I made him his favorite pasta dish, which was heavy on the garlic, so he smelled the aroma the moment he walked in. Immediately, he commented on it and looked pleased. We had a great evening together, the first in months. I was so pleased and surprised by his positive reaction that I felt motivated to keep being ‘the new me.’ Since then things between us have been so much better, it’s amazing. He’s come home earlier and he’s even calling me from work just to say hello. I can’t believe the change in him. I’m so much happier this way.”

The moral of this story is obvious. When one partner changes, the other partner changes too. It’s a law of relationships. If you aren’t getting what you need or want from your loved one, instead of trying to convince him or her to change, why not change your approach to the situation? Why not be more pragmatic? If what you’re doing (talking to your partner about the error of his/her ways) hasn’t been working, no matter how sterling your logic, you’re not going to get very far. Be more flexible and creative. Be more strategic. Spend more time trying to figure out what might work as opposed to being hell bent on driving your point home. You might be pleasantly surprised. Remember, insanity has been defined as doing the same old thing over and over and expecting different results.

Look, life is short. We only have one go-around. Make your relationship the best it can possibly be. Stop waiting for your partner to change in order for things to be better. When you decide to change first, it will be the beginning of a solution avalanche. Try it, you’ll like it!

How to Handle Anger in Your Relationship

SOURCE:  Sanaa Hyder, M.S.Ed./Gottman Institute

Anger can be processed by going on a run, practicing yoga, or mindfully engaging in deep breathing. While these are all great tactics, what happens when your anger is directed at your partner in the heat of the moment?

Anger can overwhelm even the most self-reflective and self-aware person. When you are flooded, your pulse races and your limbic system takes over, making rational thought almost impossible.

It’s important to understand that anger is often a red herring which covers up more vulnerable feelings such as embarrassment, sadness, and hopelessness.

While deflecting anger in the moment may not be possible, it is possible to identify the feelings beneath. So how do you do this?

Consider the narrative of your anger and use those phrases as keys to unlock your underlying primary emotions.

For example, this is how Ruth feels after her husband bailed on their date night:

I am so angry at you. You always cancel on me to meet up with your friends. You make me feel so small and unimportant.

The key emotion here is feeling unimportant. Once she identifies this, she can communicate in such a way that her partner can understand her.

She can then construct a more coherent and loving start-up to their conversation:

Ruth: “Is this a good time to talk about something that’s been on my mind?”
Steve: “It is.”
Ruth: “I feel unimportant when we make plans and you cancel them. I’m sure you don’t mean to make me feel that way. Can we make time this week to do something together?”

By focusing on your feelings beneath the anger, you welcome your partner to offer empathy and make a repair instead of becoming defensive. Instead of starting a fight, you’re starting a respectful dialogue about your feelings. You are also asking your partner to be on your team.

Couples who understand that respect, kindness, and love are more effective than harshness and criticism are what Dr. John Gottman calls the Masters of Relationships.

Resisting the urge to blame

Blaming feels good in the moment, but the effects can be disastrous. Even if you feel angry at your partner, it doesn’t mean that your words should be harsh or critical. In fact, in order to get your message across, it’s vital to avoid the Four Horsemen. Here, old adages such as “you catch more flies with honey” are spot on.

While expressing anger or blame can get your point across, it will also erode your intimate bond.

If you attack with criticism, your partner will likely become defensive and blame you right back. They may also get flooded and be unable to focus on the discussion, cause it to escalate.

Conversations like this eventually create emotional distance because the more critical and contemptuous you are, the more you will chip away at your friendship. Choosing your words and emotions with care is not easy. It takes practice, but once you start using this approach, it can repair and actually strengthen your bond over time.

So the next time you get angry, stop and think about why you’re angry. Is it because you’re embarrassed? Worried? Disappointed? Tell your partner what you feel and what you need. Learning to recognize when anger isn’t really what you’re feeling is a skill used by emotionally intelligent couples.

Hurt Feelings Do Not Mean You Did Something Wrong

SOURCE:  LaVerna Wilk, M.A./Gottman Institute

I was recently visiting with a friend and she shared a story about a blowout fight she had with her husband. Being a therapist, I’ve grown used to this over the years.

The story went like this. Someone accidentally moved her chair as she was going to sit down at work, causing her to fall and hit her neck against a desk. As a result, her range of motion was limited and it was very painful for her to turn her head.

After her fall, her and her husband had been driving on the freeway and as he was trying to make a last-second lane change, he asked her to check out the passenger side window for cars. She said she felt disregarded because he knew she was in pain, and his request only made it worse.

She called him a name that I won’t repeat here.

“If the roles were reversed, I would have been in the right lane way ahead of time so that I didn’t cause him pain. I was so mad at him,” she told me.

What’s wrong with her complaint?

Not a thing, but what you’re not hearing is her history of feeling like her needs don’t matter and like she is less important than others. As the youngest child from a large family that struggled financially, decisions were always made based on what was best for the larger unit, and her needs were often ignored because the bigger picture was, at times, quite dire. So, she is sensitive to situations where her needs are not acknowledged.

I’m reminded of the quote from William Faulker: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

Triggers are normal

Here’s the kicker. This is a trigger for her. Triggers are normal, enduring vulnerabilities from moments in our past that escalate interactions in the present. They are normal because we all have them, and while their impact can be managed, they can rarely be eliminated.

Does this mean her husband did something wrong? Nope.

Is she just being overly sensitive? Nope.

It’s just not his trigger, so it didn’t occur to him that it could be an issue.

Further, when we only know what is happening in one person’s subjective reality, it is pretty easy to feel indignant on their behalf. But here’s the reality about subjective realities: all points of view are valid.

From his perspective, he grew up in a hardworking family where people worked through their pain and didn’t complain. His parents coached his sports teams, drove him to hockey at any ungodly hour of the morning, knew the names and phone numbers of all his friends, and taught him that he could be whatever he aspired to be.

They also yelled a lot and demanded what they wanted or needed. So because she had not clearly stated that being upright in a moving vehicle was causing lots of pain for her and that she really needed him to bubble wrap her in love, it didn’t occur to him that he was asking too much.

Hurt feelings are normal

In the grand scheme of life, this situation feels trivial. So why is it so important for the couple to talk about it? Because when someone’s feelings get hurt in marriage, it doesn’t automatically mean someone did something wrong. It just means feelings got hurt. It’s how couples manage it that matters.

In a perfect world, her husband would have been more careful about his driving and she would have been more clear at the beginning of the drive about her pain. But these things didn’t happen, so her feelings got hurt, then she got contemptuous towards him, and his feelings got hurt.

This is not actually an argument – it’s what we call a regrettable incident. Even the best couples have them. In our couples workshops and in session, we teach couples how to repair after an interaction like this. Can you easily list examples like this from your own relationship?

Masters of Relationships repair early and often. They remember their partner’s triggers and they respect them. You are not a Disaster because you had a regrettable incident, but you might be or become one if you don’t repair.

Dr. Julie Gottman says that “within every regrettable incident is a conversation the couple still needs to have.” We call this a recovery conversation.

All it would have taken for this couple is for one of them to say, “I can see why your feelings got hurt. That wasn’t my intention, and I am sorry it happened. Your feelings matter to me.” This is relationship repair that works.

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