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Save Your Marriage: Signs of Marital Problems and Ways to Make Marriage Work


The principles on this page build on the work of John Gottman

Signs of a serious marital problem

Sign 1: Harsh Start-ups

Harsh Start-ups consist of the husband and wife beginning discussion of problems in a negative way, using accusations, or in an attitude of contempt.

Sign 2: The "Four Horsemen": Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, Stonewalling

Criticism: This is an attack against the person, which is quite different from discussing problems. In criticism, a problem is seen as a defect in the other person. A problem may be related to the way a person does something, but the way a person does something is not the same as the being of that person. Also, if we are discerning the Christ in each other, we may also see the weakness of the Christ but we don't know the person after the flesh.
Defensiveness: This is a poor reaction to continued criticism and contempt.  The spouse who is being attacked becomes defensive, sometimes even trying to deflect by blaming the accuser.  This defense does not work as the attacker simply intensifies the attacks until the emotions of the attacked spouse overwhelm him or her.  These events of being overwhelmed are known as flooding.  When they are overwhelmed repeatedly, it leads to other problems.
Contempt: This is an escalation from attacks to inner disgust and dislike for the spouse.  The criticizer has hypnotized herself or himself into what could be called confirmation bias.  Now, everything appears to prove that the other spouse is no good.  There is no good that the criticized spouse can do to overcome this since the spouse who is doing the criticizing has developed a filter so that every action good or bad appears evil to the critical spouse.  Contempt can be seen in insults, name-calling, correction grammar, sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. Contempt is the main predictor of divorce and also of the occurrence of infectious disease in the recipient of contempt over the following years. Apparently, receiving contempt results in a downgrading of the immune system.
Stonewalling: This is a final position of defense against continuing attacks of criticism and contempt.  It is the attacked spouse who shuts down.  Stonewalling is usually an attempt to avoid flooding. The stonewaller is trying to calm down. The spouse who has been repeatedly accused will try to put space between themselves and their attacker.  Sometimes, they will try to be away from the home.  Sometimes they will just shut themselves down against all emotion, both negative and positive, in the home.  This defense doesn't work either, but rather does even more damage to the relationship.  The accusing spouse intensifies the accusations again.

Sign 3: Flooding

The spouse who is being attacked is able to bear up under the emotional pounding to a certain point.  They feel like they are doing fine and taking it in stride.  Then, suddenly, the emotional abuse takes its toll and emotions overflow violently and surprisingly.  The flooding happens very quickly once it starts and it is very ugly.  There is very little lead warning to the person who had been bearing the burden of criticism and contempt quite bravely (even if ineffectively).  Once flooding occurs, people who are flooded don’t feel safe, so de-escalation is more difficult. After the flooding occurs, the criticized spouse feels defeated, ashamed, and destroyed.  They are in shell shock.  Often, the critical spouse begins to inwardly or outwardly gloat. Men are more prone to flooding that women and have a harder time recovering.

Sign 4: Body Reactions

During the flooding experience, heart rate and blood pressure increase and adrenalin and cortisol are released.  The ability to make decisions or to maintain a discussion vanishes.  The body was designed by God to only release small amounts of adrenalin and cortisol for very short periods of time.  However, extended release of these powerful chemicals does permanent harm.  Repeated flooding will eventually cause permanent emotional damage. 

Repeated flooding causes a kind of muscle memory. The person becomes skilled at flooding. The triggers become more sensitive and the reactions more intense.

The damage done can be healed by Jesus Christ, but there can be scars that may take a long time of peace in the marriage to heal.  Also, there is the problem that the criticized person begins to also have a confirmation bias against the abusing spouse.  They no longer see Christ in their critical spouse. The criticized spouse eventually will come to hate the criticizing spouse and will not be able to see any good in the spouse who has shown contempt for so long.  A sense of hopelessness sets in.

Keep in mind that the fall in the Garden of Eden turned human beings inside out and backwards in a sense.  We were designed to have our spirits joined to the Holy Spirit.  Then, our spirits are designed to rule over our minds and our minds are designed to rule over our bodies.  The fall reversed all of that.  Our entire beings were torn away from God and joined to Satan.  Satan rules through the body.  The body rules over the mind.  The mind rules over the spirit.  When we are born again, the Holy Spirit is once again joined to the human spirit.  The Holy Spirit and the human spirit then join to rule over that part of the mind that has been conformed to Jesus.  That part of the mind that is still in subjection to the body is known as the flesh.  This is what causes the flooding.

Sign 5: Failed De-escalation Attempts

A de-escalation attempt is whatever couples use to ease the tension.  This could be humor, affection, sitting and talking it out, or any other method that works.  When these attempts fail, flooding occurs.

Sign 6: Bad Memories

Bad memories create confirmation bias.  Memories are blurred and distorted by highly negative emotions repeated so often.  It has been said that it takes seven positive experiences to overcome one negative experience.  That is probably true, but keep in mind that there are differences in the intensity of experiences.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

Principle 1: Enhance Your Love Maps

You have detailed knowledge of your spouse.  Study your spouse.  Understand your spouse.  This understanding is a love map.  You cannot have a real love map until you fully discern Christ in your spouse.  Your spouse has a flesh, and so do you.  Your flesh is not the real you.  The real you is that part of yourself that has conformed to the image of Christ.  This is true of your spouse.  It is important that you see this reality.  Reality is truth.  It is the truth that sets you free.  If you look at your spouse and see flesh, then you have become a judge with an evil heart.  You are like the person who has a log in your own eye but you are trying to remove a speck from your spouses eye.  The log is your inability to see Christ in your spouse.  You are failing to discern Christ in His Body.  You are failing to discern Christ in your spouse.  How could you possibly heal your spouse's blindness when you are more blind than your spouse, since you are not discerning Christ in your spouse.  How can you tell whether you are discerning Christ?  Do you have any sense of irritation, anger, resentment, or any other negative emotion toward your spouse?  If so, you are not discerning Christ in your spouse and you are unable to help your spouse since you are worse off than your spouse spiritually.

Friendship: Friendship is a way of describing a married couple when they aren't fighting.  They respect each other.  They love each other. They enjoy each other's company.  

Discerning Christ in Each Other: The family is a unit within the Church.  We are to discern the Body of Christ.  Mutual love and respect happens when two people discern the Body of Christ, that is, they discern Christ in each other.  If a couple can do this, there is a flow of the healing Anointing of the Holy Spirit through their spirits, minds, and bodies.  This flow of the Anointing flows between them and through them drawing them together.  The fleshy negative thoughts about each other and about their marriage die out.  Those negatives are crucified.  This is part of what it means to die to self and live to Christ.

Making a spiritual and emotional connection:  This can be done through having a daily family devotion.  You may sing together, read the Bible together, or speak of spiritual truths.  You may do ministry together, visiting the sick or those who are in need.  You may ask your spouse's opinion and then listen to their response.  You may tell your spouse that you were wrong when there has been a problem.  You may affirm your spouse and encourage your spouse.  You may use touch to make a connection.  It is important that spouses do not defraud each other sexually, but non-sexual touch is also important.  You may do acts of service for your spouse.  You may give your spouse a gift.  There is something about flowers that men sometimes don't understand or forget about, but women tend to like flowers. It doesn't have to be expensive, but a gift often is a way that you can connect and bring unity between yourselves.

Principle 2: Nurture Your Fondness & Admiration

It is important that you believe in your spouse.  Both the husband and the wife need this.  Both need respect.  However, men generally need respect much more than women.  Women generally need love more than men do, though both men and women need love.  For this reason, it is very important that a woman honors her husband.  When she fails to honor her husband, she begins to tear down her home with her bare hands.

Thankfulness is key. First, be thankful to God. Thank Him for your spouse. Count the blessings that come from your spouse. If you have fallen down into the pit of bitterness and confirmation bias, this will be difficult to see, because you have blinded your own eyes to goodness, but you can get out of the pit. Begin to allow the Holy Spirit to reveal the blessings of your spouse. Then, begin to think about these things more and more. Express your thankfulness to your spouse.

If you are both Christians, then you can realize that your spouse is a member of the Body of Christ. You can begin to see Christ in your spouse. The Apostle Paul says that a woman ought to honor her husband. When the wife can see the Christ in her husband, this vision prevents feelings of contempt from arising in a woman, because it is impossible for a woman to feel disgust for someone she admires.  Paul tells men to love their wives. When a man sees Christ in his wife, this vision brings love into a man's heart, and this love flows to his wife.  It is impossible for a man to avoid loving his wife if he discerns the Body of Christ.  When you see Christ, you focus on the ministry of your spouse.  You value that ministry.   The ministry is all good all the time.  There is no bad in it.  The flesh is evil.  There is no good in it, not in your spouse's, not in yours, not in anyone's.  See your spouse's ministry, the Christ within them and to realize that they, like you, have a fleshly nature, but they, like you, are a new creation in Christ.

Principle 3: Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away

Turn to your spouse in little ways every day.  This will just happen if you follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit will lead you and give you the power to do this.  One way to do this is through works of service.  When you have been apart, take a little time to regain rapport.  It helps if you begin with a hug.  Look into the eyes of your spouse.  Take time to be romantic.  Talk.  Listen.  Take interest in your spouse.  There is no other place where God has given you more responsibility.  Bring a surprise gift to your spouse.  A husband may give his wife a flower.  A wife may give her husband something related to his hobby.  Look to God for leading in this, and you will be surprised at how well He guides you.

Principle 4: Let Your Spouse Influence You

Avoid autonomous decision-making.  The husband is set with a governing authority from God, but that governing authority is not for lording it over the wife.  The husband cannot make a good decision without input from the wife.  God has called you together.  You are incomplete without each other.  Failure to take input from each other is failure to discern the Body of Christ.

Principle 5: Solve Your Solvable Problems--De-escalation Relationships

Key skills:

  1. Replacing defensiveness with listening.
  2. Speaking without affixing blame.
  3. Speaking in praise and admiration for the other person.
  4. Accepting and cooperating with de-escalation attempts. Validating your spouse's de-escalation attempt.
  5. Empathy: Understanding how your spouse feels and what you can do about that.
  6. Emphasizing areas of agreement.
  7. Stop trying to "win." When you "win," you lose.
  8. Avoid negative inner self-talk. Reject the voice of the enemy.
  9. Discern the Body of Christ--Recognize the Christ in each other.

Steps to problem resolution:

  1. Soften start-up.
    1. Be very gentle in bringing up issues.
    2. Take responsibility for yourself in whatever part of the problem you have contributed to the problem.
    3. No piece of paper is so thin that it doesn't have two sides.
    4. Do NOT present issues as a defect in your spouse.
  2. Express openness to discuss when you are accused. Avoid defensiveness.
    1. That's an interesting point. Tell me more about what you see as our problem and how I contribute to this.
    2. Don't counterattack.
    3. Don't whine or present yourself as a victim.
  3. Make de-escalation attempts and help your spouse to make de-escalation attempts. (See Sign 5 above)
    1. "I'm really sorry." "That didn't go very well." "Can we talk about it."
    2. The recipient of the de-escalation attempt is the most important player. Will they be receptive or resistant?
    3. When one tries to de-escalation and the other resists, flooding will probably occur.
  4. Comfort yourself and your spouse.
    1. If conflict is escalating or flooding has occurred, calm things down.
    2. Thankfulness is important, both expressing it and thinking about it. Let it predominate.
    3. Focus on the flooding if that is what has happened.
    4. "I'm sorry. I was wrong to say . . . Please forgive me. What should I do?" "I need a break. I need time to cool down." "I don't feel safe right now."
  5. Compromise.  Note that compromise is not the goal.  It is a workaround.  The goal is to find God's will.  When you are disagreeing, pray that God would show you both His will.  Keep in mind that His will is likely to be different than either of your opinions.
  6. Be tolerant of each other's faults.  To tolerate is not to condone.  Tolerance, the word, has been misused.  It does not mean you have to say that the fault is OK.  If you are Christians, then you see that the faults are inherent in the flesh.  The flesh has no good.  The flesh is the one you both died to when you both were born again.  The flesh is the one who is no longer you or your spouse.  See Christ in your spouse.

Principle 6: Overcoming Gridlock

When one is following his or her own dreams, this will lead to gridlock.  If neither spouse in being led by God, then this will cause even more powerful gridlock.  Listen to your spouse.  Love and respect your spouse enough to hear the entire story.  Pray together for the answer.  A spiritually immature person has trouble doing this.  The spiritually immature person wants his or her own way and assumes that he or she is right and assumes that his or her spouse is wrong.  Get off the position and reexamine the problem.  It is likely that both spouses have solved the problem without even understanding what the problem is.  Pride only enters when a person is not following the Holy Spirit.  Only when there is pride will there be contention.  A person who is not puffed up can even avoid being upset when a spouse is stubborn and wrong.

Principle 7: Shared Meaning

It is very important to have daily devotions.  It is also important that you discuss spiritual things together.  Attend weekly services.  Take part in prayer meetings, and Bible studies.  Attend at least one yearly camp meeting or retreat.  Spend time in the Word so that you both agree.  Spend time in the presence of Jesus so that you both are building on the same foundation.


Last updated: Jan, 2014

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