I'm often asked how Hubs and I have managed to stay married for sixteen years, have three kids, and keep from committing splattery homicide. How do you, people inquire, keep from a nasty, Deion-and-Pilar-Sanders-style divorce after all that time?
The methods Hubs and I incorporate in order to keep the peace are many and well-utilized. The absence of domestic violence between us is not just because I would die before I was photographed at the Collin County jail in the infamous Mug Shot Towel (gray is so not my color).
It is true we were both born to parents with long marriages and famously concrete heads, so we come by those variables naturally, I suppose, which help elongate our union. And while hard-headedness may or may not play a factor in whether or not your marriage succeeds or fails, believe it or not, there is a science surrounding what factors and variables are associated with successful forty-plus year marriages (evidently not killing one another or divorcing is considered "success" within marriage. And it totally is).
Psychologist John Gottman has spent twenty years studying what it takes to make a marriage prevail. He's unmasked a lot of myths people believe about marriage, too. Turns out more sex doesn't necessarily improve your marriage. Frequent arguing does not actually lead to divorce, can you believe that one? Turns out how you argue and how you make repairs matters more.
Other interesting and fun divorce-busting facts: wives who make sour faces when your man talks? You're more likely to be separated from that guy within four years. There's a reason husbands withdraw from arguments: emotional flooding. We're the athletes of the relationship skills. We can sprint. Men? Well, let's be kind and say getting frequently winded is a problem. Believe it or not, Gottman did a study of 2,000 married couples over twenty years, and the result? He can predict within 94 percent accuracy which people will stay married and which will divorce. Stunning, but scientifically accurate. And not surprisingly, Gottman isolated certain attitudes that can single-handedly doom your relationship. He called these attributes The Four Horsemen of the Marital Apocalypse.
See if you recognize the presence of any of the following attitudes and the behaviors that go with them in your romantic relationship:
Criticism. It's a tough struggle for me in life, really, to be right about everything. It can be such a burden. But when I start enlightening Hubs about the correct way to do...well, everything, the first Horseman enters the building. Now, complaining isn't criticizing. When I moan about Hubs leaving every empty container ever out on the counter, that's complaining. Not attractive, but not a Horseman. But if I attack Hubs' character or personality? That's criticizing.
Contempt. And yes, the familiarity of marriage can breed it. Words and body language communicate your disgust and your thoughts that your partner is stupid, incompetent, a fool. You don't admire your spouse. Compliments and admiration are hard to hold onto in the presence of contempt, and all of the sudden there's no mutual attraction. Boom. Welcome, Second Horseman. Wanna stay married? Keep the contempt out of your conversations. Especially insults, name calling, mockery, and my favorite, hostile humor. Wait. What? Don't forget to eliminate the non-verbal contempt, too. Sneering, rolling your eyes, curling a lip, picking lint off your skirt while he's trying to communicate with you...all are loud body language.
Defensiveness. So once contempt has galloped into your marital bedroom, nostrils flaring and harness jingling, our third Horseman defensiveness is not far behind. Makes sense to want to protect yourself from insults, but the innocence game is hardly authentic. But defensive phrases and the attitude they express escalate arguments. Watch out for these defensive moves in particular: denying responsibility. Making excuses. Repeating yourself. Oh, and this is a good one: reading your partner's mind which you just KNOW is full of negative judgements about you. "Yes, but"ting. Cross-complaining: "We never have anyone over because you're so antisocial." "No, it's just that you never clean up the place."Ouch. And watch out for the body language of defensiveness: fake smile, shifting from side to side like you're going to get sucker-punched, folding your arms. There's the Third Horseman. And finally:
Stonewalling. Once the other Horsemen have taken up residence in your honeymoon cottage, pooping all over your hopes and dreams, stonewalling can represent rock bottom. And it's pretty self-explanatory. The stonewaller just removes him or herself from the situation by turning into a stone wall. Oh, you're not trying to be neutral. You know this. You are exerting icy power, distance, and, my favorite: smugness, which makes me want to throat punch you. And not surprisingly, it's much more upsetting for women when men do it than the other way around.
So the moral to the story of a successful marriage? Don't let the Four Horsemen contribute to a grinding cycle of negativity. Don't let complaining turn to criticism, let criticism slide to contempt, become defensive because of the contempt, and then stonewall to avoid the erosion of your relationship. The good news is some negativity is just the spice your marriage needs to keep it strong...as long as y'all know how to play it.