June 8, 2010

Making Marriage Work - A Recommended Book

Speaking of marital therapy, one book I really, really like to recommend for couples, one that has helped many that I've worked with, probably more than any other (in my experience), one that both partners seem to easily buy into (very important), is The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman, PhD.

This couples self-help book is fairly easy to understand, fairly straight forward. Gottman uses very common, everyday speak. It's largely research / outcome /evidence based advice, which means he bases his suggestions on findings in a lab, instead of touchy-feely, abstract, unituitive, flowery language that leaves readers feeling good and hopeful but without any explicit tools to apply to their relationship, and thus, no true or lasting impact.

Gottman's Seven Principles deals quite a bit with anger and how a high degree of anger can negatively impact a marriage, whether the anger is externalized - yelling, blaming, name-calling, stomping, hitting, having an affair; or internalized - stewing, turning away, shutting oneself off, silent treatment, self blame, martyrdom.

The portion in the book I refer to most often is the section Gottman refers to as the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" -- four communication patterns to eliminate from your relationship:

1. Criticism - or as one psychologist described them, ad hominem personal attacks. Rather than make a complaint about a specific behavior, followed by a request for positive change, habitual criticisms and verbal attacks are toxic in a marriage or partnership.

2. Contempt - I like to describe this as saying one thing with your words but saying something entirely different, and critical or derogatory, with your voice tone and/or body language. Some researchers believe that 90% of communication is non-verbal. So ugly, harsh voice tone tends to be the loudest of all. Gottman's research has also suggested that men, in particular, are highly sensitive to women's voice tone. Maybe the condescending or critical female tone reminds them of being scolded by dear-old-Mom, the powerlessness associated with those unpleasant memories. I don't know. But it bears reminding that a shrill tone of voice is a huge turnoff.

3. Defensiveness - When faced with a partner's complaint, taking a super defensive posture can be a fast track to getting nowhere. So often in an arguement we see the pattern of complaint, followed by the partner's defensiveness, followed by the same partner's cross complaint.


Partner 1: You don't help enough around the house.

Partner 2: Me? I do plenty around this house! What about you? You never make the bed in the morning and you're always leaving a mess on the bathroom counter!

Defensiveness followed by cross complaint followed by defensiveness followed by cross complaint. It can be an endless, vicious cycle. No one is listening. No one is taking responsibility. No one is offering to make changes.

4. Stonewalling - Shutting down communication is the cornerstone of stonewalling. Refusing to talk, basically. And it isn't only verbal. Meeting a spouse's complaints with a blank stare or a hostile glare or other forms of aggressive body language (arms crossed, jaw jutted out), walking out, otherwise known as storming out, slamming doors, staying gone, pouting, sullen expression, avoiding the spouse who dared to voice displeasure.

Gottman is widely published in professional, peer-reviewed journals. He has been doing research on marriages for more than twenty years, looking at what helps marriage last and what behavioral trends are associated with divorce. He touts that he and his researchers are able to predict what factors bring couples to divorce court 95% of the time. Excessive anger is one communication pattern and behavioral style at the top of the list.

Many troubled couples come from families where a lot of anger was freely expressed and heartily justified. Individuals with this background often come into therapy looking for validation that anger is healthy, that anger is good to express.

Gottman's work cuts right through these justifications. Instead of loud, ranting discontent, expressing wants and preferences in a calm and respectful voice tone is at the heart of healthy communication. Disagreement is healthy, yes. Expressing disagreements is healthy, yes. In fact, Gottman points out that marriage with the least amount of conflict are often the most at risk.

But aggressive attacks and screaming matches? Not good.

Communicating in a healthy, assertive way isn't always natural and seldom is it easy. Gottman's work helps show the way in simple, concrete terms. In a world full of bookstores full of relationship self-help books, this one is a keeper.

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