by Poonam Sharma, Ph.D.
A bad marriage or long-term relationship can have detrimental effects on your health, while a good one can protect you from disease and speed recovery. Sociologist Linda Waite, Ph.D., says, "Marriage is sort of like a life preserver or a seat belt. We can put it exactly in the same category as eating a good diet, getting exercise, and not smoking."
John Gottman, Ph.D., a well-respected psychologist and marriage researcher reports that an unhappy marriage can increase your chances of becoming ill by 35% and take four years off your life! He believes “working on your marriage every day will do more for your health and longevity than working out at a health club".
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Although many of us believe that anger is the root cause of unhappy relationships, Gottman notes that it is not conflict itself that is the problem, but how we handle it. Venting anger constructively can actually do wonders to clear the air and get a relationship back in balance. However, conflict does become a problem when it is characterized by the presence of what Gottman calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:” criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
1. Criticism. Criticism involves attacking your partner’s personality or character, rather than focusing on the specific behavior that bothers you. It is healthy to air disagreements, but not to attack your spouse’s personality or character in the process. This is the difference between saying, “I’m upset that you didn’t take out the trash” and saying, “I can’t believe you didn’t take out the trash. You’re just so irresponsible.” In general, women are more likely to pull this horseman into conflict.
2. Contempt. Contempt is one step up from criticism and involves tearing down or being insulting toward your partner. Contempt is an open sign of disrespect. Examples of contempt include: putting down your spouse, rolling your eyes or sneering, or tearing down the other person with so-called “humor.”
3. Defensiveness. Adopting a defensive stance in the middle of conflict may be a natural response, but does not help the relationship. When a person is defensive, he or she often experiences a great deal of tension and has difficulty tuning into what is being said. Denying responsibility, making excuses, or meeting one complaint with another are all examples of defensiveness.
4. Stonewalling. People who stonewall simply refuse to respond. Occasional stonewalling can be healthy, but as a typical way of interacting, stonewalling during conflict can be destructive to the marriage. When you stonewall on a regular basis, you are pulling yourself out of the marriage, rather than working out your problems. Men tend to engage in stonewalling much more often than women do.
All couples will engage in these types of behaviors at some point in their marriage, but when the four horsemen take permanent residence, the relationship has a high likelihood of failing. In fact, Gottman’s research reveals that the chronic presence of these four factors in a relationship can be used to predict, with over 80% accuracy, which couples will eventually divorce. When attempts to repair the damage done by these horsemen are met with repeated rejection, Gottman says there is over a 90% chance the relationship will end in divorce.
Tips for Improving Your Marriage and Your Health
Given that having a strong marriage is such an important key to staying healthy and happy, it makes sense to direct energy into making your relationship the best that it can be. The investment will truly be worth it. Below are some tips for making your relationship a much healthier one:
1. Nurture your friendship. Do you know your spouse’s likes and dislikes, dreams, worries, fears and hopes? Do you know in detail what your spouse did all day yesterday? Do you know what types of pressures he or she faces at work? The basis of a good marriage is a solid friendship. If a marriage is not built on a strong friendship, it may be difficult to stay connected over time. Make sure you take some time each day to confide in one another. During these times, make it a priority to listen and learn about your partner’s thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
2. Actively take steps to foster your liking and admiration for your partner. Gottman says this is the antidote to contempt. Remember your partner's good qualities. Why were you attracted to your spouse in the first place? What did you originally love or admire about your partner? By nurturing your fondness for your spouse, you can foster a much more positive attitude toward him or her.
3. Always behave respectfully toward your spouse. In relationships that deteriorate over time, respect becomes increasingly absent. Sadly, sometimes people end up treating their spouses worse than they would ever treat a complete stranger. By tolerating or engaging in disrespectful behavior, you actively contribute to the demise of your relationship. Do you ever call your spouse names? Do you ever berate your partner in front of your friends or family? Do you consider how your spouse will be affected by your cruel comments or actions? Take stock of ways you or your spouse may cross the line of respect. Remember that without respect, love cannot survive.
4. Accept and validate your partner. Recognize how much power you have to build up your spouse up or tear him or her down. You can help make your relationship a safe haven or hell on earth. Remember, everyone needs to feel accepted for who they are as a human being. Instead of attacking your spouse, try to understand his or her point of view. Also, compliment your spouse for ways he or she supports you and your relationship. It’s easy to get so focused on what is wrong in a relationship that you miss what is actually working.
5. Forgive one another. When your partner genuinely reaches out to ask for forgiveness, do not turn away. Hurt feelings and conflict are inevitable at times. When attempts to repair this hurt are repeatedly rejected, the relationship takes a hit. You may need time to let go of a grudge, bitterness, or feelings of hurt, but don’t close the door completely on your partner’s attempts to make things better. Reach deep inside and work on healing together.
6. Calm down. When conflict escalates, people can become “flooded” by strong emotions, leading to physical distress, stonewalling and defensiveness. Take a few deep breaths or call a time out. Most people need about 20 minutes to actually calm their bodies down. Take the time and come back to the issues at hand when you can actually listen to what the other person is saying without being overwhelmed.
7. Let your partner influence you. In general, men are less likely to look for common ground with their wives. Gottman notes "When a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct.” Remember that good marriages involve give and take. You are on the same team and need to work together for the sake of your relationship.
8. Warm up your relationship. Keep your relationship healthy by ensuring that there are at least five positive interactions for every negative one. Gottman’s research has identified that a 5:1 ratio of positive interactions to negative ones is linked to the stability of a marriage, no matter what your typical style of resolving conflict. If there is too much negativity, the relationship suffers.
9. Learn to let some things go. Although your spouse may do things that drive you crazy, remember you can cope. It is not worth it to struggle over every little thing. Solve the problems that are solvable and let the others go. You must learn to pick your battles carefully.
10. Don’t forget to work on yourself. A relationship is just like a dance. You move in unison to create something that is truly unique. What type of partner are you? Do you work with your partner or pull hard in another direction? Do you step on her toes? Do you gaze in his eyes or focus only on your next steps? Remember you control 50% of what happens in your relationship. Be sure you are a good partner.
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