It’s almost comical the blog posts, articles, and even books that are written for the military population that begin with some version of “so you have a military marriage and it’s more challenging than you thought it would be.”
The truth is, however, that all marriages present with challenges that are unforeseeable. The secret to healthy relationships is not the gift of foresight but rather an ability to be aware of harmful patterns of interaction and a willingness to address them.
Dr. John Gottman, a renowned psychological researcher specializing in relationships, discovered four key behavioral patterns that indicate relationship failure. Gottman’s research identifies that while all marriages will at some time or another experience these behaviors, the persistence of multiple behaviors over time indicates a high probability for divorce. Gottman coins these behaviors the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Criticism is a highly personal attack on your partner’s character. Criticism often involves a dance where there is a persecutor and victim and the tune in a military marriage often goes like this:
“You are always gone! Even when you are home you never pay attention to me or the kids, you’re mentally and emotionally checked out. You’re selfish and uncaring!”
Counteraction: Not a great look right? If there’s anything that we know about shame it’s that it is not a great long term motivator of change. Try instead to take accountability for your own feelings. Ownership of how we feel creates a dynamic where we can be on the same team as our partner against a problem.
“Connecting with you while you are home is really important to me. I would really like it if we can talk about how we can better connect with each other and limit distractions.”
Don’t worry, criticism will visit every relationship, and it’s appearance does not mean certain demise, however if it seems to be a regular habit both or one of you engages frequently in it could lead to resentment and contempt.
Contempt occurs when we no longer see our partner as the person we married but rather a version of them that is riddled with negative characteristics that over shadow the beautiful parts of them. This creates a dynamic where we either consciously or unconsciously operate from a moral high horse.
“You’re tired after being with the kids alone for one day? I did this ALONE for 10 months along with everything else while you were gone! I can’t deal with one more thing to be responsible for. You need to grow up and stop being so pathetic.”
Contempt, according to Gottman, is the most harmful behavior for couples to engage in as it single handedly is the greatest predictor of divorce.
Counteraction: Assume the most generous thing about your partner and try to remember what about them made you want to embark on the marriage journey with them. Try expressing gratitude for the things they do right instead of becoming preoccupied with their shortcomings.
Of course we usually never take criticism lying down. Relationships that have been struggling for a significant period of time defensiveness is almost always a commonly engaged in tactic to employed by us or our partners to shift blame.
“Did you pick up more toilet paper and water from the commissary like you said you would last night.”
Response: “I had to lead PT and meet with the commander today. You were perfectly capable of getting it yourself, why didn’t you just do it?”
Brene Brown defines blame as the discharge of discomfort and pain. Defensiveness is a common tactic to counter criticism with, however frequent use of defensiveness only shifts pain and discomfort and never addresses it within the relationship dynamic.
Counteraction: Rather than giving away pain and discomfort. we have to lean into it by taking ownership of it.
“I completely forgot. I was so overwhelmed with everything that happened today that it slipped my mind. My mistake, I will go after dinner and pick some up.”
We’ve addressed regular responses to criticism, but how do we often respond to contempt? When one partner assumes the role of the moral superior the listener often withdraws from the situation in order to avoid responding. Stonewalling often takes the form of avoidance, distracting, or even taken a vow of silence (aka the silent treatment).
Counteraction: How do we respond to contempt if what we really want to do is unleash the wrath and fury with a mouth that would make any sailor blush? The antidote is an intentional break. This means that we understand that we are not in a place psychologically or emotionally to respond from a wise mind so we communicate our need to take a time-out from the conversation. During the timeout we practice skills that help us calm down.
“I really need to calm down before I respond. Can we come back to this conversation in twenty minutes? I’m going to take a walk. When I get back I think I’ll feel more able to work through this.”
Practicing awareness and being able to recognize these behaviors in our relationships are crucial precursors to eliminating them. Adopting and practicing behaviors that are natural antidotes to the Four Horsemen when in conflict with your spouse will help increase the productivity of conflict. This productivity has the ability to lead to relationships that are healthy and thriving.