Dr. John Gottman’s off-quoted four decades of research on marriage, from which he has compiled reliable predictors of divorce and trustworthy principles for marital success, can be summarized in this advice: “Be nice.” Amazing. Decades of scientific research has discovered that people prefer to be married to someone who is nice to them. Whodathunk? In fact, his data from observing 4,000 couples shows that satisfied couples make each other feel good twenty times more than they make each other feel bad. Even during conflict, they maintain a ratio of 5:1, making each other feel good five times more than they make each other feel bad during disagreements. Such a mathematical approach invites the simple self-check of identifying one’s planned actions and verbiage as a plus or minus on the “feel good“ scale. That is, is it going to make our partner feel good? If not, then how is unkind look, comment, or act worth it, if the goal is a happy marriage?
Marriage counselors are often faced with the initial task of getting partners to quit blaming each other for marital problems, and to begin focusing instead on their interactive patterns that have pit them against one another. These uncaring patterns fraught with misunderstanding have not “felt nice,“ and thus have served as a rationalization to each “victim” to not be nice in return. That is, rudeness, inconsideration, and failure on the part of one’s spouse to “be there“ in a supportive way leaves a person defensive, or self – protective, thus justifying behavior that is not protective of the other. The relationship is thus cannibalized. As a result, “communication” becomes a toxic swirl of harshness, criticism, blame, and defensiveness. In this toxic swirl, one or both partners is more interested in communicating how they feel than in protecting the other’s feelings by how they communicate.
What need happen is the recognition that instead of being torn asunder by in-fighting, the two can instead be drawn together by mutual protection in pursuit of a mutual mission (“Shared Meaning” in Gottman terminology). This Recognition results in a shift from “me” to “we.” Partners switch from protection of self to protection of other, and protection of “us.”Marriage is a union; the two are one. To wound one’s partner is to wound “us.’ Not worth it. To defend the other with the same level of interest as protecting oneself is vulnerable; it comes without guarantee that the other half of the union will be equally protective. The apostle Paul – ironically a bachelor – summed it up well in Romans 12:18 when he admonished, “As far as it depends upon you, live at peace with others.“ This removes the rationalization for self-protective, self–centered behavior… “Well s/he was mean, first.” That justification might have worked on the playground, but it will destroy a marriage. Adults go first.
This is not easy, of course; no easier than when warring countries call a cease-fire and sit together together at table to work out a peace accord. Nothing about restoring peace can be easy after so many wounds have been inflicted. But it is done. Peace and reconciliation are worth it. Trust between former enemies is thereafter built, safe interaction by safe interaction. One comes to experience a former enemy as one’s present and future friend through now kind, protective words and deeds.
If a person cannot be nice to the person they profess to love—even with the help of a counselor trained in couples therapy—then there are a couple of things potentially going on. One possibility is that this person has no reason to think that past injuries won’t continue. Perhaps there has been no meaningful conversation where the hurt partner has felt understood, and their wounded emotions validated. Perhaps there has been no apology (one without excuses or rationalizations). Or perhaps that partner needs individual counseling. for, if one can’t love and protect others, then there is a need help and healing. If one can’t stop blaming their partner for all of the marital problems, then intervention is needed. Ideally, the partner will recognize this for themselves. All relationships have interactive patterns that exist on a spectrum of health. Most could be healthier; that means changes on both sides of the patterned equation. Best to begin with oneself. Rarely (never?) does it work well when the victimized partner suggests the other’s need for counseling – or worse – proceeds to diagnose the other as a narcissist or having bipolar or borderline personality traits. That may be the case, but better to hear it from a professional who can offer support and tools for change.
Only then will the harsh, critical, blaming, defensive cycle change through humble mutual focus on the interactive patterns. Only then will friendship and mutual protection replace reciprocal volleys of criticism, blame, and defensiveness. Only then will the nice-to-nasty ratio rise, such that the marriage is each partner’s safest place on earth.
The “bully spouse” is encountered with some regularity in couples counseling. This partner could be male or female. The key characteristic among bullies is that they do not listen to or heed their partner’s feelings, point of view, preferences, or needs. Specifically, bullies interact in a number of ways:
- Bullies see only their own point of view.
- Bullies do not reflect fairly their partners’ point of view before stating (or re-stating) their own.
- Bullies interrupt their partner’s attempt to explain their point of view, feelings, wants, or needs. This, even if the bully had asked their partner, “Help me understand.”
- Bullies respond to their partner’s point of view, feelings, wants, wonders or needs with sarcasm, mockery, minimizing, or diminishing their partner’s feelings or needs in comparison to their own.
- Bullies insist on seeing the worst in their partner, not granting them the benefit of the doubt, judging their hearts and motives, and refusing to hear or believe their partner’s explanation.
- Bullies put self-protection first, out of balance with protection of their partner (emotionally, physically, through allocation of resources, etc.).
- Bullies lack empathy.
- Bullies blame their partner for the couple’s interactive pattern, refusing to take some responsibility or quickly minimizing their own part in comparison to their partner’s more egregious part.
- Bullies are quick to complain and slow to compliment; noticing what their partner does “wrong,” but rarely what their partner does “right.” (In Gottman terms, this is one example of Negative Sentiment Override).
- Bullies play the victim, bypassing whatever hurt, inconvenience, disrespect, or injury their partner noted, and turning the conversation back to their own pain, inconvenience, injury, etc., making their own experience the sole issue.
- Bullies “blow up” conversations before mutual understanding is achieved, through escalation of harshness, volume, crying, yelling, etc.—for which they blame their partner—followed by hijacking the meeting and bringing conversation to an abrupt end’ perhaps even storming out as they complain they “just can’t take it anymore.”
- Bullies gaslight. Gaslighting is psychological manipulation that twists another’s correct observations to make them question their own senses, or even sanity.
- Bullies insist upon being granted grace for bad behavior because they’re “not perfect,” but do not grant grace to their partner for the same infractions.
- Bullies “listen” to their partner’s disappointment over a past incident, but when a similar scenario unfolds, they forget what their partner asked for, and do as the same as they’ve done before.
- Bullies insist upon their own way.
- Bullies build alliances with other family members & friends by painting a one-sided narrative that vilifies their spouse and turns others against their partner, often in contexts where the partner has no voice.
- Bullies continue to employ past offenses as weapons, even after understanding has been reached, a sincere apology made and received, and reformations made.
Bullying exists on a spectrum. To identify with one or more of the above, or to see one or more of the above in our partner, does not a bully make. Some of these are employed as a matter of course as we navigate life as self-interested persons. The key is the ability to balance self-interest with the interests of others.
On an extreme, bullying can be seen in people with low Emotional Intelligence (EQ). EQ was coined by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, and popularized by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence. Healthy EQ refers to “…a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.” (Salovey & Mayer) On an extreme level, unhealthy—or extremely low EQ—is evidenced in the lives of people who meet the clinical criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder or for Borderline Personality Disorder. While these personality disorders result from abuse in a persons’ pasts, it is hard to summon compassion for people who suffer from these disorders, since the outward expression of these disorders is experienced as self-centered, or outright selfish behavior.
But before you label your partner a bully, or selfish, or a Narcissist or as suffering from Borderline tendencies, look in the mirror (or watch yourself on video, critiquing yourself, never your partner). Experience yourself from your partner’s eyes. This is important because projection is the tendency to see (and be irritated by) behaviors that are our own. We see them in others and dislike them; others see them in us and dislike them the same. This is why Dr. John Gottman commends employing the Assumption of Similarity, especially during a conflict with a partner. The Assumption of Similarity is the practice of also seeing in ourselves a negative quality that we are ascribing to our partner, and vice-versa; and of also seeing in our partner a positive quality we are attributing to ourselves. This keeps us from forming an exalted view of ourselves and a contemptuous view of our partner. Jesus even warned of this when he said, “Judge not, lest you be judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)
What does one do with a bully? The solution to the bully dilemma is, first of all, to make sure that we’re not a bully. Make sure you’re not doing what you’re asking your partner to not do. Bullying back is not the path to peace. The Apostle Paul wrote, “As far as it depends upon you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
The ideal is to model non-bullying behavior for our spouse. Help them understand that you are with them and for them, willing to protect their emotions, preferences and needs in balance with your own. For the Narcissist, reassure them of your respect; for the Borderline, reassure them of your love and loyalty. That is, help them understand that they need not resort to bullying to be protected.
If your efforts to protect your partner are not reciprocated by their protection of you, then establish self-protective boundaries, even while continuing to love, respect, protect, and care for your partner. Boundaries establish what you will not accept (name-calling, physical abuse, yelling, profanity, etc.). The same Apostle Paul who said, “As far as it depends upon you, live at peace with everyone,” also allowed himself be lowered in a basket through a window to escape people who were intent on doing him harm. (Acts 9:25) The best way to establish boundaries is to voice in the positive the behavior that you find protective, and that will gain and keep your engagement. For example, instead of “Don’t be such a b****! You’re so mean; no one could live with you,” say, “I want to talk about this with you; I’ll be back when we can talk about it calmly.” Instead of, “You’re so selfish,” say, “What’s important to you is important to me, and I need to know that what’s important to me is important to you.” Instead of “I can’t live with a liar,” say, “I want us to be able to trust each other.”
Finally, the best antidote to poor communication and conflict resolution is good communication and effective conflict management. The Gottman Institute—and likely any counselor specifically trained in couples therapy—will have tools designed to help partners understand each other’s differing points of view, different emotional responses, different pasts, different values beneath a conflict, and one other’s different needs. Specific to the Gottman Institute are its exercises: Talking it Out exercise, Aftermath of a Fight exercise, and Gottman-Rapoport conversation guide. In a nearby blog post, I also offer my 5 Rs for Understanding, which guide communication toward understanding and mutual protection.
New ways of communicating take practice, of course, and practice is often most effective when we have a coach to walk us through new skills. Don’t hesitate to engage a relationship coach or counselor trained in research-based couples therapy to guide you through healthier patterns of communication.
Doug Burford, DMin, LPC
In restaurants, you can tell the dating couples from the married couples. The dating couples are talking to one another; the married couples frequently are not. Why is this?
As with most marriage-unfriendly behavior, the reason for silence is self-defense. Defense against what? For women, it is often defensiveness against feeling unloved when not heard by their husbands. For men, it is often defensiveness against feeling disrespected when he hears what he interprets as criticism and control. Neither partner sets out to make the other feel these things; each is simply doing what comes naturally to their own gender, who would not take offense.
Research from the Gottman Institute identifies a principal underlying happy, long-lasting marriages; it is that of “accepting influence.“ Decades of data shows greater marital satisfaction among couples where men accept influence from their wives. This corresponds to the tendency of women to have their “heart heard” by husbands in order to feel loved, honored, and respected. The chapter in Dr. Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work that elucidates this principle seems imbalanced in favor of men, compared to the parity of the other principles. As such, it runs the risk of fomenting as many relationship problems as it solves. It is certainly true that marriages are happier when men accept the influence of their wives more than might be a man’s natural tendency; however, the chapter is very light on whether women need adjust their own natural tendencies, as men are called to do. The truth is, couples are more likely to talk to one another if both genders adjust their natural tendencies, making it easier to accept influence from one another.
There is another noteworthy book that commends this balanced acceptance of influence; it precedes Dr. Gottman‘s book by about two millennia. I like to call it the New Testament. In it, Paul pens: “…submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”(Ephesians 5:21) and “…husbands love your wives; wives respect your husbands.“ (Ephesians 5:25). Here, both husbands and wives are called to equally adjust their natural tendencies. It was for good reason that Paul did not say, “…husbands respect your wives; wives love your husbands.“ He was asking men and women to do the opposite of what comes naturally to them, in order to meet the relational need of their spouse. This prescription recognizes that women tend naturally to extend love; while men tend naturally to bestow respect. It is the language each knows best; it is how they communicate with their own. But it doesn’t work as well in inter-gender relationships. What seems perfectly clear is a foreign language to one’s spouse. Women long for love; men long for respect. Scripture calls men and women to yield to how the other gender typically feels valued in relationship. Marriage is a journey of discovery into exactly what the alien gender means by these words, and how these are felt.
Typically, a woman feels cared for, honored, and loved when her husband patiently listens to her. She is more likely to engage in conversation over the dinner table if she has a husband willing to hear what she has to say, without finding fault in what she says, or impatiently offering fixes in order to be done with the subject. And for the man? Is there anything a woman can do to help him be more conversational? Yes. The most common complaint I hear from men in unsatisfied marriages is that their wives are “critical and controlling.“ Women want to offer ideas, make suggestions, ask devil’s advocate questions, and generally have influence in decision-making which he, longing for respect, hears as a lack of confidence in his intelligence, competence, strength, or ability to handle things on his own (i.e., without her help). Obviously, these are directly in conflict with one another at all times, and quickly become conversational barriers. What we have here is a perpetual problem, and thus a couple’s learning opportunity. Men want to competently make decisions that will heroically fix things, and protect and serve their wives and families. Women want to participate in issues is at hand, not because they doubt their husband’s competence, but because problems are opportunities to draw close; to connect; to practice mutual dependence and thus foster togetherness.
What this looks like in everyday conversation is that a woman will bring up some thought or idea, and the man—instead of hearing her heart—will key in on an error in syntax, some logical inconsistency in what she said, or some financial, philosophical, mechanical, or scheduling problem inherent in her idea. He will point out to her these problems. In a woman’s world, this is highly unloving. A woman would disregard a syntax problem and affirm the heart of her sister’s idea, using kind, emotional words. Her focus would be on connecting, and discussing the challenge-at-hand together as a bonding experience. Only incidentally and later might she ask about problems with the ideas. When a man fails to do this, it feels to her like a lack of support and a failed emotional connection. So, she shuts down. Then there is the opposing scenario common to the male experience. When he brings up an idea, his wife—in an effort to come alongside—will ask questions of his plans, pose devil’s advocate scenarios, and wonder out loud about things that might hinder the success of his idea. She may suggest modifications or alternatives that bear little resemblance to his original proposal or decision. To a man, her effort to connect feels to him like criticism and control. The male mind interprets her input as questioning his intelligence, doubting his competence, and overtaking his idea with her own. When a man feels this way, he misunderstands the advice to “allow his wife to have influence” and hears instead the call to abdicate his authority, give her her way, and let her “wear the pants” in the marriage.
What is at issue here is the different meaning men and women ascribe to the sharing of ideas. Dr. John Gray says that women share ideas in order to connect; men share ideas in order to compete. To women, the sharing of ideas and the asking of questions is a way to show caring. To men, to share ideas and ask questions is a to challenge whether another man knows what he is doing. It is questioning his intelligence and competence. Men, of course, don’t see their comments as a rejection of connection; and women do not regard their input as critical or controlling, or demanding their way. But such is the interpretation of their partner; it is one reason that married couples sit in silence. The woman fears that whatever she says will be met with some “ridiculous” objection or demeaning comment. The man fears that what he says will be met with questions and competing ideas, resulting in a hostile takeover. Neither has the energy for that conversation, so communication ends before it starts.
What is the answer to this stalemate? Step one is simply to recognize it. Women and men cannot expect their spouses to communicate in the same manner as members of their own gender. Translation is necessary. Pausing and considering the needs of the other is always necessary in relationship, and especially true when relating to a gender with which we have no direct internal experience. We need to adjust our natural tendencies. Men need to hear their wives, allowing women to “think out loud“ more than men typically do. He needs to come alongside and listen to her like a friend. This is not debate class. Surrender the grammar police badge. Let her share her thoughts and be with her, not against her. Likewise, wives can respect their husbands by scaling back the devil’s advocate questions, alternate ideas, and voiced doubts, instead granting him—at least first of all—what a man yearns for from his girlfriend – confidence, admiration, and encouragement. Neither men nor women want critics or managers; both want a cheerleader and a romantic lover, but to different degrees.
This understanding and mutual yieldedness will get us through most days. But how do we handle marital gridlock, where yielding to the other’s need for love or respect doesn’t get us past self-canceling desires, such as one spouse wanting another child and the other not. Or one spouse wanting to move to another state upon retirement and the other wanting to stay put. What then? Even in gridlock—perhaps especially in gridlock—a woman needs to feel heard and protected; and a man needs to feel respected, not controlled. In addition, three other things enter in when gridlock threatens a united decision.
The first, Dr. Gottman identifies as “becoming a dream detective.” Rather than spouses rehearsing their own viewpoints back and forth until exhaustion sets in, the wisdom here is to stop, identify, and articulate the other’s hope, value, dream, and desired outcome. This can stop a conflict in its tracks as the tone changes from self-defense to other-defense. One reason fights persist is that parties have not felt understood by each other. That’s why they keep explaining their point of view and desires over and over again. The way out of this gridlock is to articulate to the other’s satisfaction what we understand is important to them in the matter at hand. Identify and concentrate on the larger areas in which you agree, rather than upon the isolated areas in which you disagree.
Secondly, remember that relationships live on the level of attachment needs and primary motions. In partnerships, the bottom line (attachment needs) includes feeling accepted, secure, safe, respected, affirmed, love, nurtured, comforted, and protected. When these attachment needs are met, we are at peace in the relationship, even when in conflict. When these needs are not securely met, negative primary emotions surface, such as fear, hurt, sadness, and shame. Our view of our spouse becomes negative and that negativity overrides our sentiment toward and interpretation of everything he or she says or does. So, in other-centeredness, step one is to understand the source of primary emotions (hurt, sadness, fear, shame, joy and peace) that are being masked as secondary emotions (anger, frustration, irritation, jealousy, etc.). What attachment need is its source, and how can that attachment need be met by me as spouse to my partner? If I can defend that, then my partner may be able to let go of self-defensiveness.
This brings us to the third point with respect to gridlocked issues. Ask yourself, “Is this issue important enough to divide us as a couple?” Maybe it is, but hopefully such issues are few and far between. If we can take our eyes off of winning the argument, or getting our way, and focus instead on protecting one another and on the relationship as victor, then we can relax on most issues. Can we pause and switch sides – defending our partner’s position for a moment, rather than our own? If we are protecting each other as diligently as we would protect ourselves, then we have a safe relationship in which conversations happen more easily. What if a couple spent their time vying for what was important to the other rather than to oneself? Wouldn’t that be a refreshing fight? This is Dr. Gottman’s approach to overcoming gridlock when he suggests the afore-mentioned “becoming a dream detective.” When each partner is intent on discovering what is important to the other, and defending that, then we trade other-defensiveness for self-defensiveness and a vast array of new options open up to us. We become focused not on “my way,” but on “our future” that incorporates both our dreams.
The invitation here is for couples to change their view of what constitutes a “win” in marital discussion. If discussion is a debate or a contest wherein one partner walks away the “winner” by having the last word, or emerging superior in debate skills, or getting his or her way while the other feels defeated, then the relationship has lost. We do well to change our view of the “win“ such that is is measured by whether the conversation drew us closer. Was it a tool for connection? Did it make “deposits” into the relationship, rather than withdrawals? Did it improve the overall ratio in the marriage of feel-good to feel-bad interactions? Did positive emotions outnumber negative emotions? Were the attachment needs of both spouses recognized and protected, no matter the topic of discussion? Did other-centeredness prevail rather than self-centeredness? These are the things that make conversation safe. These are the things likely occurring at the table where the dating couple sits. These are things that can be practiced by the married couple, as well.