I really hope that you have already subscribed to the Positive Talk Podcast featuring Julie Homrich, LPC, and myself HERE. If not, here are the show notes from this week’s episode on Stress and Conflict in our Marriage and Relationships. I’ve also included a link to the podcast HERE, should you prefer to listen.
Merging Faith and Psychology is such an important effort in today’s turbulent and confusing times. With mental and emotional health at the top of the list for issues in our communities and families, I encourage you to join in the conversation. My promise to you is that every conversation will offer practical, positive, and hope-filled suggestions on how we can all live a greater peace-filled and purposeful life.
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HERE ARE THE SHOW NOTES FROM 1/27/2022
POSITIVE TALK PODCAST
SEASON 2 EPISODE 2 AIRING JANUARY 27, 2022
Stress in Marriage and Relationships Part 2
It’s a great day to find an encouraging and positive word here at the Positive Talk Podcast. And thanks for that introduction. Julie, this week is part two of a topic we all have to deal with – stress in our marriage and relationships and how to handle the resulting conflict that comes from stress. So let’s jump right in…
If you ever feel like you and your partner are arguing over the same things over and over again, you may be right. Gottman’s research shows that 69% of problems between couples are unsolvable problems, or what they call “perpetual” problems. That leaves 31% of problems as “solvable”— problems we won’t repeatedly return to.
I see that a great deal. When I am attempting to counsel a couple, regardless of how long they have been together, the same issues seem to rise to the top. But this concept of unsolvable problems seems like we all need to understand it better and understand Gottman’s findings a bit better. And here’s why. If indeed we love our spouse, partner, friend, whoever you are associating this conversation with, again, based on the Gottman findings, we desperately need the solutions or coping mechanisms needed to remain in peace and not allow that which is unsolvable to become defeating.
Unsolvable problems are made up of fundamental differences in personality, temperament, or lifestyle needs. Some examples of this are differences in activity level, child-rearing/discipline preferences, comfort with risk verse convention, differences in neatness or organization. Even if we return to these problems again, and again, we CAN work through our communication patterns so we don’t get into what Gottman calls “gridlock” – which is when our communication ceases to be productive and we move toward emotional disengagement. So I think this is a helpful distinction: problems don’t have to lead to emotional disconnection. They do cause challenges, however, when couples enter into “gridlock”. I’m sure you’ve seen a number of couples, Chuck, who come into your office for pastoral counseling who are sitting on different sides of the room and don’t even want to connect?
You are spot on. I see gridlock. And I see it in every generation and at every different stage of marriage or relationship. The question, knowing that this happens to a significant degree, almost to the degree that every one of us deal with it, is how then do we address gridlock, and how do we see it coming? What helps solve gridlock?
One tip is to seek to reach beneath the surface and let each person explain the reasoning behind why their values are so strong in those particular areas. In partner conflict, understanding paves the way toward the beginning of compromise and resolution. Oftentimes we try to come to a compromise before we even truly understand what the other person wants/needs.
Now we are getting at the good stuff. I have been using a little exercise for years regarding value and its impact on healthy relationships…especially marriage. Explain
Sometimes gridlock happens because of a mismatch in values and other times there is trauma or triggers that contribute to gridlock. I’ll give a personal example: My husband didn’t understand why I was always so frustrated when he took my son to the bus stop early and didn’t let me know they were leaving. It seemed so silly to him. It took us sitting down and me explaining to him that I never got to say goodbye to my dad before leaving for school the day he suddenly passed away and it was very important for me to say goodbye to our kids (when possible). It may not be as drastic or traumatic as a death, but people don’t have strong reactions to things for no reason. There’s always something underneath the surface— it could be protective measures from past experiences, neurological wiring or spiritual disconnection. So how can we help move through this? One main way to get past gridlock is to start becoming curious rather than judgmental about our partner’s reasoning behind their strong reaction.
Curiosity is usually the last thing we turn to when in an argument, right? We are so focused on being right that we lose sight of making things right. (My favorite Chuck/Jenny phase :)) So let’s say we are in a situation where we are facing a problem: perpetual or solvable. How do we approach the conversation? Many of our listeners feel like they’re afraid to approach a partner because even just the thought of bringing up a concern makes your heart race?
Gottman recommends something called the “softened start-up”. As we mentioned last week, research shows that the 3 minutes of a conflict discussion predicts with 96% accuracy how the rest of the conversation will go and with 80% accuracy how the rest of the relationship will go 6 years down the road. This is because conflict is inevitable, but how we handle it is what makes the difference between relationships that survive and those that thrive.
Here are a few suggestions to help prepare a softened start-up
- Choose a time when both partners are emotionally regulated if possible. Our patience and ability to receive feedback is directly effected by our physical and emotional state. Of course, this means we have to learn how to trust and be patient in the meantime while we wait…
- This may seem like a futile effort in many cases, but one certain way to prepare for a softened start-up, or to continually prepare for a softened start-up to healthy conversation is to actually pray together. But not in a silent way, I’m speaking of praying out loud. It’s an impossibility, to hold on to anger, bitterness, resentment, or frustration when both of you are sitting at the table with the Divine.
- Many listeners have heard of the phrase HALT: stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. It’s not best to get into heated discussions during these times. Additionally, Gottman recommends to describe what you notice verses making a judgment about the goodness/badness of your partner. Example: “I’ve noticed the laundry is still on the ground” Then move into what you need from them, using “I’ statements, verses telling them what they haven’t done right. “I’d love it if you could pick up your clothes when you get a minute” verses “Why are you such a slob?” Then acknowledge when they do it! Seeking to catch our partner doing something right is a major relationship enhancer. Gratitude is also another way we can enhance that 5 positive to 1 negative ratio we discussed last week— the ratio of positive verses negative interactions that helps keep a couple emotionally connected.
This 5 to 1 ratio is so true. Jenny can tell me five things that are encouraging and helpful and one thing that she’s frustrated with and throughout the day, my brain’s natural negativity bias stays focused on that one thing. Julie, I hear this phrase a lot in my sessions with couples. “I can do 15 things to help and all I ever hear about is the one thing I didn’t get to.
- Here is another supportive way to guide the conversation toward a softer process – Seek to understand each partner’s perspective. This is done by repeating what we believe we heard our partner say in the conflict. Remember, understanding paves the way for resolution and the only person who can confirm if you understand where your partner is coming from is… your partner.
- Exactly. So we practice something therapists use often— reflective listening. We listen to our partner and then repeat back (or paraphrase) what we thought we understood them to say. Once both partners have communicated what they thought they heard their partner say and the needs presented, only then can we move toward compromise or solution. Listening precedes understanding and understanding precedes resolution.
You mentioned last week that criticism and contempt are two things that can move conflict from healthy to unhealthy. What are the other two things that can move conflict into dangerous territory.
Yes, Gottman calls these the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” — I presume, because when they enter and remain in the conflict, it’s somewhat doomed. These 4 constructs are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. I’ll break it down here:
Criticism is when we attack our partner’s character vs stating a complaint. Think about how you can depersonalize your concern to avoid criticism. Using “I” statements helps here.
Contempt is when we talk down to our partner. We may roll our eyes or be overly sarcastic. Contempt is an attempt to regain power in the conflict but it never works well to connect the partners — it only divides. Even though it makes us feel more powerful in the moment, contempt is very very unhealthy — in fact, it’s the main predictor of divorce in relationships. Studies also show that contemptuous individuals who live in this negativity are more likely to get physical sicknesses- – contempt even effects our immune systems.
Defensiveness in conflict is oftentimes a reaction to real or perceived criticism. When we become defensive, we assume the victim position by assuming our partner is somehow intentioned to hurt or criticize us. If you’re feeling defensive, it can be helpful to try and find any area of the request where you CAN take responsibility. This helps
Stonewalling: Just like defensiveness is a response to real or perceived criticism, stonewalling is often a response to contempt. I mean, who wants to emotionally engage with someone who is looking down on them? Instead, they shut down and stonewall. A solution for stonewalling is taking a break from the conflict and returning when you’re not feeling so overwhelmed with emotion that you shut off all emotions.
The four horsemen of the apocalypse – yikes! But that is so so good. It really does go back to what your real heartfelt desire is in the communication, doesn’t it? If your desire is to wound the other person, these four will get the job done. But if our true heartfelt desire is to grow past the frustration and enter into new and healthy understanding, experience peace and contentment in the relationship and enjoy each other as the gift God has designed the relationship to be, then we all truth…truth in love to rule over our emotions. Here is the pastoral list that might be the counter to the horsemen
Actively listening to others shows you value them and their opinion or perspective because it gives them the opportunity to speak and be heard.
It is imperative that you connect – this builds trust, which makes your partner feel safe – especially when times are uncertain.
It is never a good idea to hide things, it erodes trust. Even in those times when you can’t share everything, be honest, and explain that you will share as soon as you possibly can
This means taking note of events going on in your partner’s life. It also means trying to understand your partner’s perspective.
You are the expert here, but it would appear that vulnerability is the core of all emotions. To be vulnerable with your spouse is “having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.”
Listening, connecting, honesty, empathy, and vulnerability are all interconnected. A key element for all relationships is trust, and trust is built through connection, listening, honesty, empathy, and vulnerability. When one is lacking, it impacts the others.
Julie: I want to make sure to address our listeners who feel like they’ve tried these things and it just doesn’t work. Perhaps when they offer their partner feedback, their partner hears criticism or shame. Or maybe the conversation starts well but it almost always ends up in screaming matches? For some clients, these practical steps are just what they need— a little help. But for others, these tasks we talked about feel impossible in the moment. For some people, you know what to do in the moment but it seems like whenever conflict arises, there is no controlled action, just a heavily charged reaction. Usually, that is because of some unresolved trauma or difficulty with emotional regulation. I don’t want to oversimplify conflict resolution by not bringing that up.
Next week, we will discuss how to determine if your trauma is calling the shots in your relationship and what to do about it. We’ll also discuss how you view/experience emotions and how that affects your conflict styles. If you practice these steps this week and find that you or your partner get too heated to move forward, don’t worry. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, it just means there’s perhaps some trauma or emotional dysregulation blocking you in the moment.
We all have a lifetime of experiences we bring to any relationship so it’s not uncommon to need to sort through our responses to emotions, triggers, and conflict. I like to describe it as a sandpaper experience: when two pieces are first brought together, it’s pretty rough. But, if you continue to work through things and face into it, eventually you’ll smooth each other out.
Go In Peace, Chuck