Caring man comforting upset wife after fight

How We Get Stuck 

There you go again! You just had that same old argument with that same old person about the same old issue. To no one’s surprise it resulted in the same old outcome. Maybe she needles you to make some changes and you clam up or dig in your heels. Maybe he refuses to talk about what’s bothering him then pouts and pulls away.

Whatever the “dance” between the two of you is, the crazy reality is that it’s probably happened dozens if not hundreds and maybe even thousands of times! Nevertheless, like clockwork you keep falling into the same pothole. Isn’t that the truth? 

Comedian Rodney Dangerfield made a career out of telling jokes about his marriage. One of my favorite Dangerfield quips is this one: 

“We sleep in separate rooms, we have dinner apart, we take separate vacations. We’re doing everything we can to keep our marriage together.” We chuckle at Dangerfield’s observation because we recognize there’s some truth to it. 

Over the past four decades psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D. has studied couples’ relationships carefully over time. Dr. Gottman and his research group at the University of Washington have attempted to determine the key variables which separate those who they refer to as the “masters of marriage” to those who they refer to as the “disasters of marriage.”

In one study, Dr. Gottman and his colleagues were able to combine these variables into a formula which allowed them to predict whether a couple would stay together or divorce over a six-year period. And astonishingly, they were able to do so with 94 percent accuracy!  

In his book “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” Dr.  Gottman explains that is not conflict itself that is the problem, but the way that we manage it. Couples who can vent anger constructively can actually do wonders to clear the air and restore harmony. In contrast, conflict can lead to severe damage when it is characterized by certain characteristic communication styles which lead to alienation. Dr. Gottman refers to these styles as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. 

Before you press the panic button (or call a marriage therapist) it’s important to note that all couples engage in some or all of these behaviors from time to time. However, it is when the Four Horsemen take permanent residence that the potential for the relationship to disintegrate is greatly heightened.

The good news is that resolving our conflicts can be the doorway to intimacy. Moreover, there are practical skills that we can learn to produce more mutually satisfying outcomes. 

My son Blake, his friend Daniel Roemer and I produced a four-minute video entitled “Mr. Potato head” which is intended to illustrate these serious and significant learning points in a light-hearted manner. To bring these learning points to life, watch the relationship struggles of Allie and Blake III

So who is more at fault? Is it Allie whose nagging is relentless? Her criticism involves attacking Blake’s personality and character (e.g., “you’re selfish and lazy!”) rather than focusing on the specific behaviors that we are bothering her. Moreover, Allie displays contempt by tearing down and insulting Blake (“It wouldn’t bother me if you never touched me again!”) and assuming a position of moral superiority over him. 

Or is it Blake who is more at fault? He actually reverses the blame by insinuating that Allie’s temper is the problem. (Defensiveness) and eventually simply refuses to respond, stonewalling Allie while harboring deep-seated hurts. 

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Of course, the answer is that Allie and Blake are both responding poorly, but it’s the interaction or “dance” that is perpetuating the cycle. Allie attacks, Blake defends. Allie attacks, Blake withdraws, and so forth. As Blake pointed out “we were bringing out the worst in each other.” As a result of these toxic cycles we see the emergence of the final and most lethal horseman as Allie and Blake start to exude contempt as they vilify one another

Two Keys to Becoming Unstuck: Empathy and Validation

The process of empathizing (i.e., stepping into the other person’s shoes and trying to see the conflict from his or her perspective) and validation (i.e., agreeing with the truth in his or her perspective) can be an incredibly powerful way to de-escalate a conflict. It has the effect of softening our adversary, opening him or her up to our position.

It’s far from easy in the heat of the moment to listen with empathy and search for truth in another’s allegations —especially when we are the one being attacked. And yet it’s empowering to realize that we have the power to change.

My prescription to you is the following: over the next two weeks practice applying empathy and validation to a difficult relationship in your life. When he or she becomes upset and criticizes or complains about you, stop, breathe and listen. 

Listen to understand and validate whatever truth you can. As Blake said, “even if they seem 99 percent wrong, see if you can agree with the 1 percent that on target.” Then take responsibility for any fault, and convey your openness to change. 

Remember, tiny shifts can lead to big changes. Good luck.

Dr. Blake Wagner is a clinical psychologist and president of New Directions Counseling Center in Mansfield. New Directions provides employee assistance and wellness services to over 30 local employers.