Some pretty amazing research has been done in Washington State at the Gottman Institute over the last 40 years. During this time, Drs. John and Julie Gottman, whose research is highly respected and quoted in the field, have interviewed over 3000 couples. Longitudinal research of this type yields very significant results. The Gottmans say they can predict whether or not a couple may be heading for divorce within the first 15 minutes of interviewing them. They call these predictors the "4 Horses of the Apocalypse."
Divorce is only inevitable if the destructive dialogue persists unchecked!!
The 4 Horses of the Apocalypse
Couples who routinely engage in the behavioral dynamics below are treading on tough marital waters. The Gottmans say these behaviors are present when a marriage is in serious danger of ending. There is hope for couples that practice these destructive habits. Take a look at these predictors to discern if your marriage is in trouble. If you exhibit these behaviors, treatment is available, some professional couples work can really help.
Criticism is indicated by conversations begin with "You always..."You never..." Problems are brought up critically instead of neutrally. Critics like to dump all the problems in the relationship on the other spouse. It usually involves denigrating something in the "other's" personality that can lead to character assassination.
This occurs when one spouse criticizes from a position of moral superiority. This may include nonverbal behaviors such as eye rolling and looks of disgust. It also may include lecturing and a haughty or demeaning tone. Expressions of impatience and hostility are experienced as hatred and probably are the most demoralizing behaviors couples may exhibit.
This takes place when a spouse shields herself/himself from criticism by either attacking or whining. Attacking occurs when the spouse defends their position by hurling an accusation against the spouse who is bringing up the problem. Whining is when the spouse complains that they don't do the behavior their spouse is describing. Instead, the adult response is something like: “Could you be more specific?” “Could you give me an example of when I do that?”
Stonewalling occurs when one spouse shuts down emotionally. They may refuse to engage in conversation about the issue or become silent. The vernacular for stonewalling is the silent treatment.
A Warning for All of Us
Perhaps you are already fuming because your spouse is guilty of at least 3 of the 4 behaviors described above...I invite you to assess again! You may notice your own contribution and participation in creating the disconnect in your marriage. Sometimes you might find yourself in the deep and murky, deceptive waters of denial. I do.
I have struggled with this myself. Who me...be critical or condescending? Come on now! I'm a Christian counselor! Possibly you're a pastor, leader, or teacher in the body of Christ. Maybe you're a writer or worship leader or just someone attending church and Sunday school? No matter! These behaviors are common to men and women alike.
Remember: I cannot take ground in my marriage that I haven't first permitted the Lord to take ground in me! Am I respectful? Am I able to take criticism without becoming defensive or uptight? Do I feel attacked when my spouse points out an area that they would like to see changed. Hmm...the Light of His Truth comes to my spouse and to me.
All Truth is God's Truth
As a Christian marriage counselor I look to the Word to see what God has to say about the findings of secular research. I believe all truth is God's truth. The Bible addresses the Gottmans’ “apocalyptic horses" in the Old Testament.
Psalm 123 is a prayer for relief from contempt.
Be gracious to us, O Lord, be gracious to us,
For we are exceedingly filled with contempt.
Our soul is greatly filled with
the scoffing of those who are at ease,
And with the contempt of the proud. (NASB)
The book of 2 Samuel is about King David's foibles and conquests/blessings. He is widely criticized by his wives and children. King David's greatest strength in the eyes of God was was his heart for God; consequently his response to criticism pleased God. He was not defensive when criticized, but took all of his critics and their allegations and recriminations directly to the Lord.
Almost the entire book of Proverbs addresses wisdom in relationships and business, including the folly of treating people in a condescending manner. Proverbs 6:16-17 tells us that God hates 6 things and one of them is a proud or haughty look.
Is Your Marriage in Trouble?
In general, these behaviors signal a serious amount of distress and disrespect in the marriage. Criticizing, attacking, defending, condescending, and the silent treatment are indicative of a remarkable disconnect in the relationship. These things can be quite easily addressed in marriage counseling. People can improve their marital dynamics by becoming mindful about their own behaviors and developing a high ownership approach to problems. High ownership is the able to identify and take responsibility for what I'm doing to harm the relationship. Of course a new skill set must be acquired to replace the old bad habits.
Next month I'm going to discuss some of the Gottmans’ strategies for improving the negative verbal expressions identified here. Meanwhile, if you're ready to learn more from the Gottmans insightful work for improving marriage, see the resources below.
Susanne Ciancio, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Christian Counselor. She has been serving the Christian community as a professional Christian counselor in Essex county and the surrounding area since 1986. Beyond her private practice in West Orange, NJ she is involved in teaching, consulting, and pastoral supervision in various churches in the area. Click here for Susanne's website.
EDITORS NOTE: While Susanne can’t answer specific counseling-related questions, she welcomes your thoughts, comments, and suggestions about what kinds of topics you’d like to see addressed here at Circles of Faith.Click here to contact us.