Marriage Advice From A Christian Perspective

4 Communication Skills for a Healthy Marriage

disputed couple staring at each other in disagreement

What if I told you how you communicate with your spouse, especially during conflict, can be a predictor of whether or not your marriage will last? It’s true. Well-known psychologist, researcher, and founder of The Gottman Institute, Dr. John Gottman, has shown through studies the ability to predict divorce with 90 percent accuracy. He uses, among other devices, something he calls “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.” The Gottman Institute fittingly uses the end-times images from the book of Revelation, as their presence in your marriage means the same – a foreshadowing of the end. These “four horsemen” – criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling – will deepen a divide between husband and wife and destroy your marriage.

According to The Gottman Institute, “These 4 things are predictive of divorce because they each indicate disconnection and opposition in communication. Rather than expressing their emotions and needs, the couple is engaging in unhealthy patterns which disrupt their ability to connect and thrive.”

To have a healthy marriage, it is critical that we first recognize these communications styles in ourselves, and secondly, focus our efforts on specific communications strategies to overcome them. Here are a few communications skills we would all do well to develop to help us enjoy the healthy marriage God has intended for us.

1. Know the Difference Between Complaining and Criticizing

I have a natural tendency to criticize, and I know this about myself. Even still, occasionally, my wife has to bring it to my attention if I’m being overly critical of something she is doing or how my kids are acting. Fortunately, we can employ a simple tool to avoid going down the path of criticism: knowing the difference between criticizing and complaining.

Criticizing is focus on someone else – their actions, flaws, or shortcomings. Complaining is looking inward and focusing on your own feelings. Criticizing is using “you” statements, but complaining is using “I” statements. Criticizing also attacks someone’s character, whereas complaining focuses more on how specific actions make you feel. Instead of calling out something about your spouse during a conflict, consider thinking about your own emotions. Instead of saying something like “You always do…”, say something like “I feel this way when that happens.” This approach allows your spouse the opportunity to fix the problem without feeling like they are being blamed for it.

2. Build Up Your Spouse

The second horseman from The Gottman Institute is contempt, which is considered the single biggest predictor of divorce. Contempt is what happens when the first horseman – criticism – is allowed to run wild. You may be thinking, “I love my husband/wife, so this one probably doesn’t apply to me.” But, contempt can show up in a variety of smaller actions over time. Things such as sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling, or mocking are all destructive behaviors that fall into the contempt category. Many of us have probably exhibited behaviors like these that tear down those we love instead of building them up. The latter is the recipe for overcoming contempt in your marriage: building an environment of love, respect, and adoration.

My kids have a couple of books by Carol McCloud about being a “bucket filler.” This is the idea that we all carry around an invisible emotional bucket. Others can do and say nice things to us to fill it up. Or, they can take from our bucket by being mean. Experts say the “magic ratio” for a marriage is 5 to 1: for every one negative interaction, there should be at least five positive ones. Every day, we should look for opportunities to build up our spouse. The Bible has a lot to say about this.

“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)

“So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:19)

3. Own Your Mistakes

Many of us encounter the third horseman – defensiveness – on a regular basis. It’s a natural form of self-protection, usually coming in response to what we perceive as criticism. The irony is this: we consider it a way to explain or defend ourselves from criticism when in reality, we are blaming our partner and turning the criticism around. By being defensive, we are saying, “It can’t be me that messed it up; it must’ve been your fault.”

We should learn to employ a communication skill that sounds simple but is actually quite hard: owning our mistakes and taking responsibility for our actions. No marital conflict will be resolved until we learn to openly admit our own role in it. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16)

4. Know When to Call a Time-Out

Stonewalling during a conflict is when you completely withdraw from an argument and choose to no longer respond to your spouse. It’s walking away and slamming the door. It’s shutting down, bottling up your emotions, and giving your partner the silent treatment. Stonewalling is usually a response to contempt, and it happens when we feel attacked and under pressure. While stonewalling is a negative reaction, it’s important to recognize when an argument is getting out of hand, and you need to call a time-out. Taking a break helps you to calm down, and when you return to the discussion, cooler heads will prevail.

The Bible says to “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). In the heat of an argument, you are likely to say something critical or full of contempt, act defensively, or shut down altogether. Instead, say something like, “I’m feeling overwhelmed by this discussion right now. Can we take a breath and come back to it in 30 minutes?” During that time, take a walk, pray and ask God to help you know the right way to move forward.

In Dr. Gottman’s studies, they found over and over again that when couples take a break in the middle of an argument, they came back with lower heart rates and a significantly more positive and productive conversation. This break – which he dubbed “physiological self-soothing” – allowed each person to calm down and be more respectful.

Every marriage will experience conflict, and we each have natural tendencies in how we deal with them. Knowing ourselves is half the battle. But, to have healthy and thriving marriages, we need to develop these communications skills that will keep the “Four Horsemen” in the barn.

Related Resource: Listen to our new, FREE podcast on marriage: Team Us. The best marriages have a teamwork mentality. Find practical, realistic ideas for strengthening your marriage. Listen to an episode here, and then head over to LifeAudio.com to check out all of our episodes:

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Antonio_Diaz

Brent Rinehart is a public relations practitioner and freelance writer. He blogs about the amazing things parenting teaches us about life, work, faith and more at www.apparentstuff.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @brentrinehart 


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