What are the top 3 common relationship mistakes? The answer might surprise you.
It doesn’t take a psychologist to observe that solid marriages rest on a foundation of shared meaning and purpose. But three common marital mistakes might be eroding that purpose in your life every day.
As Dr. John Gottman observed;
“…they don’t just get along, they also support each other’s hopes and aspirations and build a sense of purpose into their lives together.”
That sounds like a daunting task, particularly for couples grappling with different perspectives on an uncertain future.
The science around how couples fight has revealed what I call the “Great Marital Paradox” of marital harmony:
Most issues that spark marital conflicts cannot be resolved.
That’s right. Is your husband not as neat as you’d like him to be? Does your wife take too long to get dressed? You can bicker and fight about these kinds of issues, but to the extent that you habitually engage this way, you’re likely to be protecting yourselves from discussing the hidden problems that drive these surface squabbles.
Unfortunately, unless value differences are addressed in a spirit of mutual respect, the bedrock of shared meaning and purpose will elude you. Chronic differences are treated differently in happily married couples. Spouses still complain about them, but they do it with a sense of humor, with more teasing than fury.
Unhappy families have rigid patterns of behavior, restraining their behavior more than happy families. So the fact is that unhappy families are all alike, and science is teaching us how, and what to do about it.
Let’s start by defining what a “start-up” is; “the initiation of an unpleasant conversation you want to have with your spouse.”
Gottman’s research has revealed distinct patterns of negativity that he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
It may be initially useful to think of these like a team of horses dragging a marriage into divorce. These are Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and the worst and least common of them all, Contempt. Once two or more horses are yoked and start working in tandem, they begin to pull the couple toward marital unhappiness.
You can also see how these play off each other like an evil jazz quartet.
Gottman has noticed that women tend to lodge most of the marital complaints. They are likely to be the “beekeepers of the relationship.” Let’s be realistic.
Living with a partner, you’ll occasionally get stung., and you are going to have complaints about their habits or behavior.
But the way you go in to check that relationship hive–calmly and slowly, or excitedly and waving your arms–is going to impact how badly you’ll get hurt (as well as harm the bees).
A complaint is narrow in focus and is limited to the facts at hand. Here are a few examples of a complaint:
“The toilet seat is up. Again.”
“The kids need a bath and to be put to bed. I want you to help because I’ve done it for the last three nights.”
“I am too tired tonight. It is too late for me.”
Women, on the whole, are the ones to complain in a relationship, and that’s normal. You can do it gently and with smoke, like a professional beekeeper, or dramatically and stir up the hive.
This is the difference between complaints and criticisms. Here are the same complaints, as above, presented as criticisms:
“Are you impaired? How many times do I have to tell you to put down the toilet seat? Are you that lazy?”
“You could care less about your kids. They need a bath, but all you’re doing is reading the news!”
“You want SEX? Tonight? Are you kidding me? I work like a dog all day, and now I’m supposed to serve you at night?! Forget it!”
When you read the above statements to yourself, imagine a woman running up to and opening a beehive and waving her hands around wildly.
A criticism seeks to establish an overarching meaning to the behavior. It points out character flaws or evil intent. And it comes out swinging with the first few words:
“You are so lazy!”
“Why are you so selfish?”
“You are useless!”
Gottman points out it is relatively easy to transform a complaint into a criticism, by just adding the words:
“What’s wrong with you!!!!”
It’s a question nobody answers with the words:
“I’m so glad you asked. Where do I begin?”
Don’t feel so bad. Research tells us that the first horse, criticism is pretty common.
The thing to watch out for is when criticism becomes an established pattern of how you interact.
Women, who tend to be the ones to complain, should notice how they start out their complaints, and intentionally try to “soften” them, just as you would approaching a beehive. And a little soothing “smoke” doesn’t hurt, either.
My mother used to say “You can get more bees with honey than you can with vinegar!” So start out with some sweet words of understanding:
“Look, honey, I know you worked late tonight, but I’m dead tired and made dinner for the last three nights. Do you mind doing it tonight?”
Soft start-ups aren’t about hiding your annoyance. It’s fine to be annoyed at the consequences, but try to provide an explanation that doesn’t suggest a character flaw.
The Prophet said that woman prevails over the wise,while ignorant men prevail over her. –Rumi
While he could have been talking about physical domination, he might also have been talking about “stonewalling.”
You know the scene: The man has just sat down after work to read the daily news online when he hears his partner’s call: ”Sam, can you give the kids a bath, while I fix dinner?”
Sam kinda remembers answering. Didn’t he?
Next thing Sam knows, his wife, Linda, is at his office door and looks none too happy. “Are you ignoring me? Are you going to give the kids a bath or what?”
Sam looks up quickly but then looks back at the online news. He mumbles something.
Linda is now as intent as a dog on a meat wagon, and her voice is escalating: ”SAM!! I’m talking to you!! ARE YOU OR NOT!”
Sam has tried for the last few minutes to disappear into his monitor but has not been successful.
Vaguely, out of his own internal ruminations about how little free time he has, and how hard he works, he looks up, really looks up, to see Linda still standing at the door, looking very agitated and upset.
“What?!” Sam says. He’s finished to the bottom of the article, but hasn’t read a word.“Would you stop yelling at me? I said I would.”
Sam will tell you that he “couldn’t quite hear” what Linda was saying when she first shouted up. Or maybe he did call down, but she didn’t hear him. She also “knows that he hates it” when she “barks” orders to him from a different floor. But that doesn’t really explain his behavior when she was standing at his office door.
Linda’s ready to blow a gasket, while Sam looks calm. But looks are deceiving.
According to Dr. Sue Johnson, ignoring and stonewalling your partner looks like a “passive state of partner avoidance,” but “[f]rom an attachment perspective, stonewalling can be understood as an attempt to regulate intense attachment fears and to protect the relationship from further negative escalation.“1
For Sam, this attachment fear comes out in his uncertainty over just how much he can refuse his wife, and still be safe from her anger, and keep her love.
If you ask Linda, she’d say: “He never answers when I talk to him. He says he didn’t hear me, but he doesn’t listen, either. It doesn’t matter how I ask him or how I try to explain how angry it makes me when he ignores me—I can never get through to him.”
Sam says: “I can never answer her quickly enough…and I never get five minutes to myself. No matter how much I do around the house, either I don’t do it right, or I don’t do it fast enough for her liking. I don’t do what she asks me to do when she tells me to do it. When I do do it, it’s the wrong way, or after she told me five times, so ‘it doesn’t count.’ It’s a no-win situation.”
This “shutdown, non-response mode” as Dr. Johnson refers to it, often triggers panic or aggression in the other partner “as in, ‘I will make you respond to me.’” Sometimes partners cry or get intensely angry in response to the “no-response” response.
It isn’t just that Sam isn’t speaking. As a stonewaller, he doesn’t give his wife the usual listener-tracking cues (eye contact, open body, head nods, brief vocalizations), or move the face, or look continuously at the speaking partner (the listener may use brief gazes.)2
When Sam finally speaks, he passively agrees to give the kids a bath, but Linda is still agitated and upset. Adults aren’t alone in responding poorly to a lack of response from loved ones. Take a look at this video:
Babies need to get a response from their attachment figures, and as Dr. Johnson has learned, so do adults. They need to know that when they make a request or are upset by something, that their intimate other is willing to attune to them and respond with care.
Meeting a flat or unresponsive face is like opening a hive to find the bees all motionless. Women get upset at that and try to stir things up, regardless of the cost.
Sam’s efforts to “keep the peace,” and not tell Linda that he wants some time to himself before he bathes the children, has won him anything but peace and quiet.
He’d tell you that he didn’t want to “start a fight” (he feels that “he never wins” when he does,) but that’s just what he’s done.
The stonewaller will do well to decisively respond when they realize they are ignoring or blocking their partner’s influence. Sam might not only look at Linda and say:
“Wow. I spaced out there, Linda. You must have been talking to me for quite a while, and I didn’t hear a word. I’m sorry honey. Of course, I’ll give them a bath. I’ll just finish this article, and be right down.”
Better yet, Sam might do well to get up from his chair, look at her in the eyes, and hug his wife to repair with her and reassure her. When stonewalling is a rare experience, she’s likely to recover from being upset quickly, just as the toddler in the video did.
However, when stonewalling has become chronic, she’s likely, like the neglected toddler, to be unable to settle, and might even get more upset at his soothing words.
Husbands who regularly stonewall might do well to begin to massage their wives on a regular basis. Tiffany Field discovered that just 15 minutes a day of massage by a husband of a woman who was suffering from postpartum depression was as powerful as antidepressant medication.
But it takes more than looking her in the eye and giving her a hug when stonewalling has become chronic. Sam needs to be transparent with Linda, according to Gottman. He has to be responsive when she talks, (notice I didn’t say “agree with her,”) keep his promises and do what he says he’ll do.
Gottman says that we need to know that our “partner is an ethical, moral person—a good person, someone who will treat us and others with high moral standards, integrity, honesty, kindness, love, and goodwill.”
It is more than capitulation. Sam’s efforts to dodge conflict meets his own needs at the expense of others. It would be acting with higher integrity to talk directly about his own needs.
We have to be able to trust “our partner’s intentions, motives, and actions toward us. It’s about the question: “Just where do I fit into my partner’s motivational scheme?” “Do I come first in some meaningful sense, compared to other people or my partner’s goal, or do other things take priority over me?”3
If Sam is intentionally ignoring his wife to get “downtime” with his online news, breaks his promises or his commitments to her, his behavior will eventually be seen for what they are: manipulations.
Gottman defines defensiveness “defending one’s innocence, warding off a perceived attack, meeting an attack with a counterattack (a righteous stance of indignation), or whining (an innocent victim stance).
You can do this in any number of ways: “denying responsibility for a problem (it is all the partner’s fault), cross-complaining, or whining. The denial of responsibility fuels the escalation of conflict probably because it suggests one’s partner is totally at fault for the issue.”
Sam can really intensify the battle when Linda asks “Why didn’t you answer me?” by saying “Because I don’t think I heard you (mistruth) and because you never just come up and talk to me.
You know I hate that(counterattack). I just wanted a few minutes to myself. Is that too much to ask? (whining).
Own up, instead of getting defensive, make a repair attempt. ”I tuned you out. I’m sorry. I should have just told you that I would do it after dinner.”
Instead of explaining why you are right and your partner is wrong, try the reverse approach: Why your partner is bringing up a good point, and how you need to take heed.
Sometimes that’s not possible, because both of you are angry, or tired, or just not at your best.
Goodwill is important here.
When Sam says “Linda, you are right, but I’m just too tired to give this the attention it needs. Let’s get an early night and discuss it in the morning,” Linda should take him at his word. However, Sam has to follow through to keep credibility.
Let’s face it, fighting between couples is more the norm than the exception. According to one researcher, couples have more than 300 arguments each year. Fighting isn’t the problem, Getting angry isn’t a relationship mistake either.
The key is how each of you responds to the fight. Keeping your feedback as complaints instead of criticisms, practicing soft start-ups (don’t anger the bees), and respond with openness to complaints instead of stonewalling or getting defensive will go a long way toward keeping that beehive humming and avoiding this 3 common relationship mistakes.
Field, T. (2001). Touch. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Field, T. (1991). Touch therapy. New York: Churchill Livingstone. Montague, A. (1986). Touching. New York: Harper & Row.
Gottman, John M. (2011-04-11). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples (p. 122). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Gottman, John M. (2011-04-11). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples (p. 123). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Johnson, Susan M. (2011-03-19). Becoming an Emotionally Focused Couple Therapist: The Workbook (p. 86). T & F Books US. Kindle Edition.
Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her online couples therapy and sex therapy practice for couples in Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona and California. She is a Gottman Certified Couples Therapist, has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and has been a AASECT board-certified sex therapist from 1982-2017. She continues to work as a sex therapist.