By Beverly Rodgers PhD and Tom Rodgers PhD
Veteran Marriage and Family Therapists
Famous marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, from the University of Washington has been studying marriage for over twenty years. He actually has a love-lab, as he calls it, where couples come and live, and are observed via hidden camera. These couples are also wired to biofeedback machines to determine their levels of stress as they interact. Dr. Gottman and his staff have studied the interactions of these couples and carefully calibrated them, as well as their stress levels on a daily basis. They have found that couples who possessed certain unhealthy behaviors and styles of communication were more likely to divorce. The top four unhealthy communication patterns are listed in this article.
Because of his extensive research, Dr. Gottman can predict, with over 90% accuracy, which of the couples who come to his lab will divorce and which ones will stay together. His findings have basically cracked the code to marital relationships. If couples become intentional and avoid these predictors of divorce, it has been proven that they have a much greater likelihood of staying together for the long haul.
The amazing thing is that what Dr. Gottman and his team of behavior scientists found was written in the scriptures thousands of years ago. The book of Proverbs is a book of ancient Hebrew wisdom. The writer of this book gives us clear ways to practice godliness in all relationships, especially marriage. Just look and see how Dr. Gottman’s research and the wisdom in Proverbs go together. Let’s examine his findings. The first predictor of divorce is criticism.
Typically Dr. Gottman found that most marital conflicts start with criticism. He found that wives are more prone to criticism than husbands. It seems that the wives see themselves as the gatekeepers of relationships and often bring the thorny issues to the table. It is not that he believes that couples can live without criticism altogether. That would be impossible. He just found that spouses should criticize behavior not character. They should also do it softly and in a loving manner, not in a harsh or angry tone. In other words, instead of saying, “Why are you so irresponsible with money?” you should
say, “When you fail to heed our budget I feel afraid that we will get into financial difficulty.” The latter statement goes to behavior not, character. The book of Proverbs says: “A gentle word causes life and health, griping brings discouragement” (Proverbs 15: 4). Proverbs 17: 9 says, “Love forgets mistakes, nagging parts the best of friends.”
The good doctor also found that most men meet criticism with stonewalling. This is defined as avoidance of the issue in any way possible. It can be verbal, “Why are you bringing this up and ruining a perfectly good evening?” or “I refuse to discuss this now,” or nonverbal like walking away, gesturing, or pouting. Women can also stonewall, but statistically men seem to reign supreme in this area. The problem with stonewalling is that difficult issues do not get resolved and resentment grows. The healthy way to resolve conflict is to learn to communicate in positive ways and bring closure to difficult issues when possible.
The book of proverbs talks about accepting criticism and responding in healthy ways when spoken to. Proverbs 24: 6 states, “It is an honor to receive a frank reply.” Proverbs 25: 12 says, “It is a badge of honor to accept valid criticism.”
Dr. Gottman found that both genders were equal opportunity offenders of this predictor of divorce. Basically, defensiveness is just what it says it is. You defend; instead of seeing what part of your partner’s criticism might be true, you simply defend your point and desire to be right. Often times, the more the wife hurls details of wrong doings to the husband, the more defensive he becomes. He then starts to make excuses, lay blame, or develop some criticisms of his own. “I’m only doing this because of you,” may bluster out of his mouth. This ignites her defensiveness and they both protect, and fortify their perspective. This leaves little room for you to see your partner’s perspective and also to see what part you may be playing in the conflict.
Let’s face it, there is a little truth in almost every criticism. Defensiveness keeps you from finding it. Here is what Proverbs says. Proverbs 11:29, “The fool who provokes his family to anger and resentment will finally have nothing worthwhile left.” Proverbs 12:16, “A fool is quick tempered; a wise man stays cool when insulted.” Proverbs 13:3, “Self-control means controlling the tongue! A quick retort
can ruin everything.” And finally Proverbs 14:1, “A wise woman builds her house, while a foolish woman tears hers down by her own efforts.”
Criticism begets criticism, and defensiveness begets defensiveness. No one is truly being heard when this happens. Because each partner has been wounded, and attempts to heal these wounds have been unsuccessful, each person begins to build resentment and even unforgiveness toward his or her mate. Their souls no longer feel nourished and safe. Their needs are not being met as they once were. This leads to the last predictor of divorce, contempt.
Living in the negative state of the criticism/defensiveness pattern can quickly move a couple downhill, in terms of building a caring warm relationship. Some even quit. They may quit literally, or emotionally, by having an affair or diving into television, work, or children. Either way, they are emotionally divorced. The pain of this behavior pattern causes contempt. All the passion and energy that once filled the relationship has now turned into a seething ember of hostility in their souls.
This anger can move on the continuum from mere apathy–I don’t care, I’ll just do my own thing, and get my own needs met–to pure hatred–I cannot forgive my mate or trust him or her ever again. This bitterness and resentment can cause a couple to be overwhelmed with negative emotion. Because of this they have a hard time seeing anything positive in the marriage at all. The writer of Proverbs says, “It is better to live in a corner of an attic than to a beautiful home with a cranky quarrelsome woman” (Proverbs 25: 24). Proverbs 26: 21, states, “A quarrelsome man starts fights as easily as a match sets fire to paper.” Proverbs 30: 33, echoes, “Anger causes quarrels.”
Simply reading these proverbs on a regular basis and doing the best you can to carry out their wisdom can go a long way toward preventing the unhealthy patterns of criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness and contempt that eat away at your relationship and possibly lead you to divorce. Just think of all the time and energy Dr. Gottman and his eager team would have saved if they had just regularly read the wisdom of the Hebrew poets written so long ago.
What Marriage Researchers found to be Unhealthy Communication
Proverbs 15: 4 A gentle word causes life and health, griping brings discouragement.
Proverbs 17: 9 Love forgets mistakes, nagging parts the best of friends
Proverbs 12: 1 To learn you must be taught. To refuse reproof is stupid.
Proverbs 12: 15 A fool thinks he needs no advice but a wise man listens to others.
Proverbs 24: 6 It is an honor to receive a frank reply
Proverbs 25: 12 It is a badge of honor to accept valid criticism.
Proverbs 25: 24 It is better to live in a corner of an attic than to live in a beautiful home with a cranky quarrelsome woman.
Proverbs 26: 21 A quarrelsome man starts fights as easily as a match sets fire to paper.
Proverbs 30: 33 Anger causes quarrels
1. Repair Attempts
Proverbs 13: 1 A good man wins his case by careful argument the evil man only wants to fight.
2. Receiving Influence
Proverbs 13: 10 Pride leads to arguments, be humble, take advice and become wise.
Proverbs 15: 31-32 If you profit from criticism you will be elected into the wise a man’s hall of fame. But to reject complaints is to harm yourself and your own best interests.
Proverbs 13: 8 If you refuse to accept influence you will end in poverty and disgrace.
3. Soft Versus Hard Start Up
Proverbs 14: 29 A wise man controls his temper. He knows it causes mistakes
Proverbs 15: 23 Everyone enjoys giving wonderful advice and how good it is to say the right thing at the right time.
Proverbs 15: 1 A gentle answer turns away wrath but harsh words cause quarrels.
4. More positives than negative comments
I John 4: 7 Beloved let us love one another
Philippians 4: Whatsoever things are pure and beautiful, think on these things.
John Gottman, The Marriage Clinic (W. W. Norton, 1999).
Scriptures found in The Living Bible.