Here are some of the experts whose work influences my thinking and my behavior.
John Gottman – He’s a well-regarded psychologist who researches what’s different about marriages that survive and marriages that end in divorce. Two big takeaways.
First, the ratio of positive to negative interactions between spouses is 5:1 or greater in successful marriages. Interactions include our words, our body language, and our facial expressions. Fighting, teasing, and defending your boundaries are indeed OK in a marriage, but only when outweighed by smiles, kind words, gentle touches, enthusiastic agreement, kisses, hugs, and other good stuff.
Second, there are four horsemen of divorce. If they ride into town, get help right away. They are Criticism (of your mate’s character or personality), Contempt (insults, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mocking), Defensiveness (acting like a victim, justified in your critical or contemptuous response to what you don’t like), and Stonewalling (stony silence, icy distance, the silent treatment, changing the subject).
Shelly Gable – She’s a well-regarded positive psychologist whose research shows it matters more what we do when a spouse is capitalizing (sharing good news) than looking for sympathy.
There are four possible capitalization responses: active-constructive, passive-constructive, active-destructive, and passive-destructive. Active-constructive responses lead to strong marriages.
The constructive part means you focus in your initial response on the upside of the good news and ignore any possible downside. Sure, winning the lottery may bring moochers out of the woodwork and getting on the bestseller list could make it harder to eat out anonymously, and getting a promotion might require more overtime, but now is not the time for that discussion. It is also not the time for discussing when you will get fed or what a bad day you had or some good news of yours from your childhood.
The active part means you give it more than a passing, “That’s great.” You join in telling the story of this good news. You recall the hard work that led to it or label it a well-deserved turn of events. You ask questions about how your spouse wants to celebrate or what good things will come from this.
Harriet Lerner – She’s not a researcher, but her analogy in The Dance of Anger thirty-some years ago struck a chord with so many of us for so long that it’s well worth paying attention to.
Your initial attempts at a change in your marriage are likely to be met the same as a new step in a dance. Without even being aware of it, your spouse may try to lead you back to the familiar and expected steps, and more than once. Give a strong signal that you will be trying a new step and keep trying until it feels comfortable to your spouse, even if it means being led back to the old one a few times.
Gary Chapman – He’s a preacher who observed that we don’t all regard the same things as signs of love. This leads us to misinterpret our spouse’s actions or to get poor reactions to our best attempts at being loving.
He named Five Love Languages that seem to cover most of our misunderstandings, and millions of us have shared them and his books about them with others. The languages are Receiving Gifts, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, Acts of Service, and Quality Time. If your spouse speaks a different one from you, it’s time to learn more about it.
Emerson Eggerichs – He’s another preacher, and I must admit I did not buy his advice at first. He backed it up not with research but with Bible verses I thought were taken out of context. And then I heard him speak. In a room of 2,000 marriage educators, half men and half women, all well-trained in what makes marriage work and what does not.
The 1,000 men in that room were my research sample. Hearing their response to his questions opened my eyes. Since then, I have seen brain research backing it up. To men (unless you mess with their testosterone and estrogen levels), feeling loved means feeling respected, not cherished. And just as women who stop feeling cherished often lose respect for their men, men who stop feeling respected lose every romantic impulse. Eggerichs calls this stepping on each other’s air hoses, because we behave frantically when we feel we have lost the love we need to live.
The takeaway: If you feel you are losing your wife’s respect, cherish her anyway. And if you feel you are no longer cherished by your husband, give him your respect anyway. Because your partner goes into panicky survival mode when you don’t.
Gottman’s Four Horsemen (Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling) convince us we are no longer respected or cherished, even when Chapman’s Words, Gifts, Acts of Service, Physical Touch, and Quality Time try to say otherwise. Gable’s Active-Constructive responses show respect and speak the Love Languages of both Quality Time and Words of Affirmation. Defensiveness (one of the Four Horsemen) is all about trying to lead the Dance of Anger back to the old, familiar steps. And I don’t know about you, but I get such a thrill from dancing with anyone whose body language feedback is positive five times as often as it says I goofed up that I will try my best to follow any change in the steps.
Today would have been my 40th wedding anniversary if my first husband had lived — and if I had not foolishly believed divorce was the only alternative to the resentments in our marriage. I am so thrilled that you had the good sense to look for alternatives and glad you found this blog. May all your anniversaries be filled with awe at how well you two function together and how thoroughly you are known, accepted, respected, and cherished by your spouse.