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Six Signs Your Marriage Could Be In Trouble

MarriageWhen 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:

  1. Harsh Start-up. This is where a conversation or argument starts with a bang. It can be accusatory, mean-spirited, dismissive, or attacking. It doesn’t give your partner much room to respond in a healthy manner because it puts them on edge immediately.
  2. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse:
    1. Criticism – Cutting remarks that go beyond mere complaints. Criticism adds an element of negativity toward your partner. Julie might criticize Chris when she says, “You are always missing our kids’ events. Why can’t you ever make it home on time?”
    2. Contempt – A step up from criticism, contempt attacks the very being of your spouse and questions their goodness as a person. Julie might step up her criticism by saying to Chris, “You are just so selfish and only care about yourself! It must be nice to live in a world where you are the only one that matters!”
    3. Defensiveness – Defending yourself or your position so that you look or feel right. Chris could respond defensively to Julie, “You don’t know what I do all day. Somebody has to work so that you can have everything you want. It’s not easy, you know!”
    4. Stonewalling – An emotional or physical cutoff from your spouse. It comes in the form of checking out of conversations, seeming to not care about what is being talked about, or simply ignoring your spouse during these heated moments. Chris could stonewall Julie by saying, “Yeah, I guess I missed his game,” and then go watch TV without saying anything else.
  3. Flooding. Feeling emotionally or physically overwhelmed to the point of wanting or needing to check out from your spouse.
  4. Body Language. The body speaks. Dr. Gottman found that when a person’s body is distressed, as often occurs in an argument, (increased heart rate, blood pressure goes up, shoulders or neck start to get tense, etc.) it does not matter how many communication skills you know. The physical effect of the emotional stress causes a person to lose their clear thinking, become unable to communicate, and feel flustered and overwhelmed.
  5. Failed Repair Attempts. These are failed attempts to repair damage that has been done in the relationship. After an argument, Julie might approach Chris and say, “Sorry for getting so upset. I know you work hard for our family.” Chris brushes it off and continues to watch TV thus creating a failed repair attempt.
  6. Bad Memories. Negativity permeates memories and past experiences. Previously cherished memories full of hope and thoughts of the future become tainted by negativity and despair. Chris used to remember their wedding with fondness, but now remembers the stress and pressure Julie put on him to get everything just right.

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.

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Written by Triston Morgan PHD, LMFT

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.

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