As I sit here recovering from the last argument with my husband, I'm reminded that fights are inevitable. I love my husband dearly and sometimes we just can't agree. That's ok! Before we got married we worked through The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver to "divorce-proof" our relationship.
Their work, in something they call "the marriage lab," discusses "four horsemen" that lead to the demise of relationships. They do not come in any particular order and just because these exist in your relationship right now does not mean that you will break up. The point is to become aware of their existence and shift the power of each horseman.
1. Criticism - Do you know the difference between a complaint and a criticism? How do you voice what you need from your partner? A complaint addresses a singular event or action with which you have a problem, as in "I'm really upset you didn't use a coaster because now there is a ring on our wood table." A criticism, however, attacks the core being of another person, even in something that may seem trivial and suddenly gains more significance than it deserves, as in "I'm really upset that you did not use a coaster. You are always so lazy! Now we have a ring on the wood table forever. Why don't you care? You never care about my things! We can never get nice things?"
2. Contempt - Contempt includes sarcasm, name calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, hostile humor, and cynicism. Contempt does not include repairs. Repairs occur in the middle of an argument when one partner tries to make the other laugh to relieve some of the stress of the situation. Contempt, on the other hand, tells your partner that you are disgusted with him or her, ultimately leading to more conflict rather than the possibility of resolution.
3. Defensiveness - Defensiveness usually arrives in response to an attacking partner. However, it does not achieve the desired effect since it unintentionally blames the partner for the problem--it doesn't end the conflict, it only increases it.
4. Stonewalling - When the listener tunes out and shuts down when the speaker is talking. In any conversation, the listener gives the cues on whether they were listening or paying attention. Usually, this horseman arrives after the other three become too overwhelming. When the listener starts stonewalling, not listening and not interested, leading to more conflict. Ultimately, it leads to more conflict.
When identifying the horsemen in your relationship, make it a game rather than an accusatory experience. Helping yourself notice these moments as much as you help your partner. Make a chart that helps both partners in the relationship identify when each of you let the horseman take over. Make sure you allow each partner to identify their own moments and honor them for making this acknowledgement.
I thoroughly recommend reading this book as it has helpful tips to promote and strengthen any relationship.
After getting married, I had a ton of thank you cards to send out! It really made me think about what "thank you" and "gratitude" mean to me. Sitting there writing "Thank you" notes, thinking of all the times I heard from my parents "Make sure you say 'thank you' or 'Did you write a thank you note yet?'" It's become part of my own process of gaining a new understanding of gratitude. What does it really mean to give thanks to someone else? When do I make time to thank myself for what I do? When do I feel appreciation for my life?
According to positive psychology research, engaging with gratitude will promote a healthier and happier life. Who knew those “thank you's" were more than just social niceties! Here are some activities to try out to increase the influence of gratitude in your life:
1. Gratitude Journal - Make it a part of your morning ritual. I know every morning is a rush to get out of the house. Take time for yourself! For one minute every morning for 30 days, write down 3-5 things you are grateful for that day. If your list makes it longer than 3-5 things, awesome! Take notes of how you feel at the end of the 30 days.
2. Gratitude Letter - Is there someone in your life who deserves thanks and appreciation, maybe even someone from your past? Write them a letter thanking them for their support, influence or whatever it may be. Make it heart-felt, genuine and honest. Here’s the hard part: set up a time to meet with this person - maybe over coffee - and read it out loud to them. Notice what it is like for you after you finish reading the letter to them.
3. Gratitude Walk - Take a walk. Notice what is around you. Use your five senses. What does it smell like? What does the air feel like? What does the ground feel like beneath your feet? Any time a thought comes to your mind, acknowledge that it is a thought and return to noticing what is around you. As an art therapist, one thing I’ve done is to take one picture of something that symbolizes that walk. At the end of the month, I collect all these pictures together and create a gratitude collage of what I've especially appreciated from my walks. "Picturing gratitude" really helps me recall what happened during that last month and helps me strengthen my appreciation.
The post-wedding time really left space for me to remind myself to build this as a habit. It may take time to build gratitude as a habit. Leave a note at your door or set an alarm on your phone that reminds you it is a gratitude moment time.
Thank you…and have some good walks!