Family Talk: 'How do you keep it together?'
My wife and I attended a recent Oklahoma City Thunder basketball game, and I was seated next to a young couple I did not know. About halfway through the game, the young man leaned over and said, “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
“No, go ahead,” I said.
So, he asked, “How do you keep it together?” Gesturing toward Diane, he added, “You know, with your woman.”
I was a little surprised to get that question in the middle of a Thunder game, but I'm always glad to dispense free marriage advice. I told him, “We made a commitment 39 years ago not only to each other, but also to the Lord. So our faith is the most important part of how we keep it together. That, plus, you need a good sense of humor because you're going to do stuff to tick each other off over the years, so it helps to be able to laugh about it.”
After receiving my marital advice, the young man nodded thoughtfully and then asked, “Do you mind if I ask you another question?”
“Ask away,” I said.
“Did you fight in World War I or World War II?”
Stifling a laugh, I told the young man I had not served in either of those wars, but my dad had served in World War II. He seemed unphased and went back to enjoying the game.
I don't think I look old enough to have served in either World War, but I'm glad the young man asked me about “keeping it together,” because it's an important question about building a lasting marital relationship.
Dr. John Gottman, a respected marriage researcher and counselor, has identified what he calls “The Four Horsemen”— four things couples do that undermine a marriage. The horsemen are:
1. Criticism: Attacking your partner with unjustified, or even justified, complaints. Using generalizations like “you always …” “you never …” “you know what your problem is …” While we might need to express a legitimate complaint to our spouse, a critical attack against the person undermines needed intimacy and trust.
2. Contempt: Acting dismissive of your partner or their thoughts or feelings. It might involve insults, sarcasm or mockery. You can convey contempt through body language (heavy sighs, rolling eyes) or by your tone of voice.
3. Defensiveness: This involves putting up a shield in conversations and making excuses like, “It's not really my fault …” or by counter complaining, meeting your partner's complaint with a complaint of your own about them: “The only reason I did that is because you always do this.”
4. Stonewalling: Withdrawing from conflict or engaging in the “silent treatment” is a slow poison pill to a marriage. Men are especially prone to this. When you stonewall, you end up stuffing your feelings down your left leg and, after a while, frustrations build up. Stonewalling breeds resentment, which will ultimately explode. It only avoids conflict for a time.
Gottman says being able to identify "The Four Horsemen" is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To fully eliminate these habits, we have to replace them with healthy ones. We'll look at those next week.
In the meantime, don't forget to “keep it together” with your woman or your man.
Jim Priest is CEO of Sunbeam Family Services and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.