When Julie and Chris (not their real names) entered my office, they were not looking at each other. I could tell they had been in a fight recently, and that it had been a bad one. They told me it started last night when Chris came home late from work and didn’t tell Julie where he had been. When asked about it, Chris became defensive. “Can’t I come home without getting the third degree?! I’ve been working hard all day to support this family!” He told Julie to stop being “such a nag.” Julie shot back a quick remark about his incompetence as a father because he had missed their son’s basketball game, again.
Whether it plays out in marital therapy or in many of your homes, this isn’t an uncommon scenario. What I told Julie and Chris surprised them. I told them the fact that they fought wasn’t the problem. The fact that they argued wasn’t what was hurting their marriage. It was how they argued. Learning how to fight fair is crucial to a healthy marriage. However, simply focusing on better communication isn’t the answer. Learning how to communicate better when your heart is vindictive is like sharpening the knife so it cuts deeper. Learning how to use “I” statements often fails as well. Couples come into my office trying to use “I” statements to effectively communicate their feelings using the format, “I feel (insert emotion),” but instead, they say something like, “I feel…that YOU are a jerk!” Ineffective to say the least, right? “I” statements are not something I teach in therapy.
World renowned marital researcher Dr. John Gottman has been conducting successful marital research for decades. He claims he can predict divorce in a couple with 91% accuracy by observing them for five minutes. Here are the signs he looks for (which are found in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work). See if you recognize any of these symptoms:
If some of these sound familiar, remember that there is still hope. Even good marriages have some of these issues, and recognizing what is going wrong is the first step in solving the problem.
For in-depth ideas on solutions to these behaviors, I recommend Dr. Gottman’s book. I will also outline his research findings on how to combat these problems and have a healthy marriage in Part Two of this series, found in the next issue of Utah Valley Health and Wellness.
Dr. Triston Morgan is a director and owner of the Center for Couples and Families with locations in American Fork, Provo, and Spanish Fork. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist and is originally from Oregon. He and his beautiful wife, Cristina, love to travel and see the world.