by Cheryl A. Rowen
Author of "When 1+1=3: Discovering God’s Plan for You and Your Stepfamily"
So what does make a marriage last a lifetime? I once heard this question asked to a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. The husband simply replied, "Going out to dinner twice a week". "That’s it?" asked the interviewer. "Yes," answered the husband, "I go on Tuesdays and my wife goes on Thursdays". Surely there must be a better way!
With an alarming 60% of second marriages ending in divorce, stepfamilies today need a way to fight back! Many of us who remarry find ourselves focusing on issues that are urgent to the daily ‘operation’ of the stepfamily:
- Establishing the carpool schedule;
- Defining roles of the stepparent in discipline;
- Establishing a relationship with the stepchildren;
- Dealing with a former spouse and potentially different parenting styles.
Although the health of our marriage may not be "urgent" (especially if newly married), it certainly is a necessary component to a successful stepfamily, and one that is often ignored.
Hebrews 13:4 instructs us to "Give honor to marriage, and remain faithful to one another in marriage". One way to honor or respect our marriage is to spend time nurturing and preserving our relationship with one another. No matter where you are in your "re-marital" journey, you can take steps now to protect your marriage, by avoiding those things research has shown will destroy it.
Predictors of divorce
After studying marriages for 20 years, John Gottman has found six predictors of divorce1:
- Harsh startups. You find yourself beginning a discussion with your spouse using criticism, sarcasm, or harsh words.
- The Four Horsemen. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (withdrawal) invade your communication.
- Flooding. Your spouse’s negativity is so overwhelming that it leaves you shell-shocked. You disengage emotionally from the relationship.
- Body Language. Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure mounts, and your ability to process information is reduced. This makes it harder to pay attention to what your partner is saying.
- Failed Repair Attempts. Efforts made by either partner to deescalate the tensions during a touchy discussion fail to work.
- Bad Memories. Couples who are "stuck" in a negative view of their spouse and marriage often rewrite their past – for the worse.
Two of these predictors have great impact on the ability to predict marital breakups: the presence of the Four Horsemen and Failed Repair Attempts.
The Four Horsemen
"You are never supportive of me in front of your daughter. Why are you so weak when it comes to her?"
"Can’t you ever be consistent with your consequences? I always have to do your dirty work!"
Statements like those above appear on the outside to be simply a way to ‘vent’ or verbalize frustrations with our spouse. However, a closer look reveals the First Horseman: Criticism.
Many of us do not make the distinction between a criticism and a complaint. It is common and natural for many spouses to have complaints about the marriage or household. A complaint offers a specific statement of anger, displeasure, or frustration. We begin to see from the above statements, however, that criticism brings with it a personal attack or global accusation (e.g., you NEVER support me, etc.) which usually entails blaming.
It is easy to see how criticism in a marriage can lead to the Second Horseman: Contempt. Contempt usually involves the intention to insult your partner, and is an open sign of disrespect.
Clearly, when criticism and contempt are present in your marriage, respect and honor are very likely absent!
How can we turn criticisms into complaints? The following offers an alternative to the statements above:
Criticism: "You are never supportive of me in front of your daughter! Why are you so weak when it comes to her?"
Welcomed Complaint: "When you disagreed with me in front of my stepdaughter last night, I felt defeated and devalued."
Criticism: "Can’t you ever be consistent with your consequences? I always have to do your dirty work!"
Welcomed Complaint: "I don’t feel we have the same rules for all our children. That’s frustrating!"
It is easy to see that rephrasing our criticism and contempt into welcomed complaints allows us to communicate our frustrations in a way that continues to honor our marital relationship.
Proverbs 12:18 teaches us that "Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing". We can bring healing to our marriage by guarding our tongue and our tone!
When stating a welcomed complaint, make sure you:
- State your specific feeling (e.g., I get frustrated, or angry when you….etc.) or needs (e.g., I need you to be more decisive…etc.) behind your complaint;
- Stay away from using global words (i.e., never, always, etc.);
- Use "I" more than "You".
It is natural to see why the Third Horseman, Defensiveness, enters a relationship, once criticism and contempt are present. Who wouldn’t defend themselves against such attacks of character?
But what does defensiveness look like? Defensiveness can take on many forms:
Category2 & Example:
1. Denying Responsibility: "It wasn’t my fault, it was yours."
2. Making excuses: "If you would have told me sooner that I needed to take him, I could have gotten him to school on time."
3. Cross-complaining: Your Spouse says, "You never stand up to her!" Your cross-complaint: "You’re always on her case!"
4. Rubber man / rubber woman: Your Spouse: "You’re not consistent with their discipline!" You: "Well, neither are you!"
What can we do if we find ourselves becoming defensive? Try these suggestions:
- Stop seeing your spouse’s words as an attack. See them as information that is being strongly expressed;
- Try to understand and empathize with your partner. Steven Covey, in his Seven Habits for Highly Effective People states, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood".
- Be open and receptive during conflict.
- Keep your mouth shut (Proverbs 21:23).
By now, we’ve seen that it’s ok to have complaints in our marriage. But to honor our spouse, and to avoid the predictors of divorce, we must stay clear of criticism, contempt, and defensiveness. The Fourth Horseman is Stonewalling or withdrawing from your spouse.
Although those who stonewall may claim they are trying to remain ‘neutral’, stonewalling makes a very strong statement to your spouse. It says, "I’ve checked out of this discussion. I don’t find it important to continue to talk about this with you anymore". It certainly does not convey honor or respect for our partner.
Interestingly, most men are physiologically unaffected by their wives’ stonewalling. This is quite the opposite for women. Wives’ heart rates increase dramatically when their husbands stonewall. To add to this, about 85% of stonewallers are men3.
It’s important to note that either spouse in a marriage may stonewall. The key is to avoid letting it become habitual. If you or your spouse find yourself wanting to withdraw or stonewall, try to:
- Stay calm – learn to recognize when you are feeling overwhelmed and make a deliberate attempt to calm yourself;
- Call a time out – make sure, though, to return to the discussion when you’ve cooled off!
We can see that the Four Horsemen can be deadly to a relationship. God warns us again and again that although the tongue is small, it can produce enormous damage (James 3:5, 3:8, Psalm 34:13, 57:4, 64:3, 140:3). We also learn that before we can have honor in our marriage, humility must precede it (Proverbs 15:33).
In Part 2 of this two-part series, we’ll take a look at Failed Repair Attempts. By learning the ‘art’ of a successful repair attempt, coupled with unbridling the Four Horsemen, you will be on your way to taking a proactive approach to protecting your marriage! Read Part 2 here.
1 Dr. John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), pp. 26-44. Reprinted with permission.
2 Dr. John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail…And How You Can Make Yours Last (New York: FIRESIDE, 1994), pp. 89-90.
3 Dr. John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail…And How You Can Make Yours Last (New York: FIRESIDE, 1994), p. 95.
Cheryl A. Rowen is Director and Founder of America’s Family Resources, a national organization focusing on the preservation of today’s family. She is author and facilitator of the seminar and small group study "When 1+1=3: Discovering God’s Plan for You and Your Stepfamily". She and her husband Thom live in Johnston, Iowa and have two children.
If you'd like to contact Cheryl, please email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.