If I had the opportunity to share one essential marital tool with every wife in America, I know exactly what I would say:
Learn to bring up difficult topics with your partner in a calm, quiet and focused voice.
Marital researcher Dr. John Gottman has studied tens of thousands of marital conversations over 30 + years. He has found that there are 4 distinct communication habits that are poison to happy relationships. He calls them the “Four Horsemen,” like the biblical horsemen that bring in the end of times in the book of Revelation.
He has learned that men have a faster body response of adrenaline (increased heart rate, blood flow to the extremities, tunnel focus of attention) than most women to partner conflict. That means that when many women are just getting into the meat of their problem, their partner has become ready to run, fight and defend. It makes it very hard for men to stay focused and listen calmly without enormous effort.
If every woman could develop the personal skill of bringing up difficult discussions with their partner in a calmer way, their male partner is less apt to “flood,” focus and defend. And the conversation is more likely to be productive and problem-solving.
It’s a skill we practice in therapy all the time. Are you able to bring difficult topics up to your partner in a calm, cooperative way? If not, you may want to start working on this skill.
What is it that I wish I could tell every husband in America? Well, that’s for next time.
I find it interesting to notice that sometimes my conversations in therapy, with vastly different people and circumstances, seem to circle around themes on occasion. This week, I’ve noticed two topics that I am repeatedly seeing in session:
1. Men who have become “awake” to their own conflicts, problem behaviors and thinking and have made radical steps to be fuller, more peaceful people. Some have partners that are whole enough people themselves who rejoice in the change, and despite years of distance, hurt and resentments, fight along with their men to restore and renew their partnership. Others have partners who are too fragile, conflicted or hurt that the reversal appears like an “act” and feel the need to flee. Whatever the result, their is great Joy in the awakening, and it’s a pleasure to keep giving these new men feedback on their personal discoveries.
2. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If there is a personality style that kills a marriage slowly and with deep pain, this is it. Whether the partner is male or female, the chronic lack of empathy on the part of the partner leaves the hurt, bewildered and worn-out one talking to me about how empty they feel when their partner, despite all evidence to the contrary, blames the spouse for all the pain, ignores the needs of their children, and never seems to connect with them. Worse still is the adult child who begins to recognize what growing up with a narcissistic mother or father has done to their sense of self, their confidence in relationships, or their ability to trust the empathy and care of another.
(I’m looking forward to the publication of the newest edition of the DSM-V. In it is a new model of personality disorders that I think will be helpful to the therapist as they come into regular contact with these persistent personality types.)
It’s been a long winter here in MN and the snow won’t quit. Once again, we will probably go from winter to summer in 24 hours. Hope that, wherever you are, you get all 4 of the earth’s seasons.