08 August 2016

How to Turn a Spouse's Complaint into Marital Success

I studied Psychology at James Madison University (go DUUUKES!!) for my undergrad degree. I was mainly fascinated by human relationships and wanted to learn everything I could about them. I took lots of classes (even electives I didn't need!) pertaining to this topic - Human Intimacy, Human Sexuality, Social Psychology, Psychology of Women, Gender, etc. And now with almost a full master's degree under my belt for Marriage & Family Therapy, I've read quite a bit on the topic of marriage. One psychologist's research in particular kept popping up on this topic - Dr. John Gottman.

He has done countless studies on marital stability and predictors of divorce. You may have also heard of his "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" that corrode away at marital happiness: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling (perhaps more on that in another post!).

I recently stumbled across this quote from him and wanted to share. A bit of context first - he was referring to a speaker and listener, such as the wife speaking first in a conflict. In that scenario, she would be the "speaker" first and the husband would be the "listener" until his turn to switch roles.

“Converting a complaint into a positive need requires a mental transformation from what is wrong with one’s partner to what one’s partner can do that would work. It may be helpful here to review my belief that within every negative feeling there is a longing, a wish, and, because of that, there is a recipe for success. It is the speaker’s job to discover that recipe. The speaker is really saying “Here’s what I feel, and here’s what I need from you.” Or, in processing a negative event that has already happened, the speaker is saying, “Here’s what I felt, and here’s what I needed from you.” ― John M. Gottman, The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples

WOW. That blew me away, especially the idea that when you listen to your spouse's complaint, you can use that for success in your relationship. If you can just take a step back, instead of becoming defensive or formulating a biting rebuttal, you can dig deeper to try to discover what wish or longing lies behind that criticism or complaint. When you find out what it is they need from you, you can know exactly how to reconcile the relationship and make it better than it was before. Ideally, spouses would be able to express these needs in a mature, non-critical fashion, but we are human, after all. Even if it unfortunately comes out as a critique, it's still better in the long run to know what our spouses need so we can begin to make amends.

If you wife tells you: "You never help clean up the kitchen," she may be wishing you knew how completely exhausted she is from her long day with the kids. She may need affirmation of her hard work or she may need your actual help so you can both relax for a bit together.

If your husband says: "You never care about sex anymore," he may be yearning to feel close to you - his wife who knows him the best in the world, and be reaffirmed that he is desired by you.

I know those are completely stereotypical examples, but hopefully they will get your brain jogging. What are some other examples of criticism that could have an expressed need or longing behind them? How can we use that to create a recipe of success for our marriages?

***Also a quick reminder to go back to last week's post to add your ideas to The Great Date Exchange! Gotta get your dates in during the month of August!***

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