My heart goes out to couples who seem forever caught between a rock and a hard place in their marriage. When they talk with each other about anything personal, it seems like they have to choose between either being kind to their mates by quietly absorbing disrespect, or else standing up for themselves honestly, only to be put down all the more for doing so. It’s suck it up, or speak the truth, which is suck a little up now or a lot up later on. So it’s lose-lose, and the feeling is you can’t win.

Whenever either partner stands up for themselves, the other partner feels terribly and unfairly put down. For whatever reason, both husband and wife have become so focused on changing their mates that neither knows how to change or accept themselves. To make peace with their mate, neither partner can respect the person they have to act like they are. But if they were to get divorced from each other, neither one is yet able to respect the person they would become, or to accept the life they would have left after the divorce. So they in essence have become married to the fight. They find themselves unable to partner, even in a divorce. It’s too much like living over in the Mideast, where people seem gridlocked into a rising tide of prejudice and hatred.

If you are in such a marriage, and divorce is not an option for you, you feel trapped into the ongoing disrespect of your marriage. What can you do all by yourself to break the gridlock? First you can learn a new dance with your mate: detachment, the art of letting go. The key behavior to learn here is the ability to back off from lose-lose conversations. The marriage (and your children) need for you to just say, "I’m sorry you feel that way," "I hear what you’re saying," or just "OK, whatever," and then walk away, WITHOUT taking any negative thoughts or feelings along with you. That last move is the hard part, and without that it doesn’t work. You’d just go back for more dialog to get rid of your pain, only to find most of it stays with you, and you’ve picked up a fresh load to boot. How stupid is it to keep looking for comfort from the one who is hurting you?

Before I tell you how you can learn to detach in peace, you’ll need to get your motivation down by understanding why. This quiet, calm detachment does many things. It’s first of all a tourniquet—it stops the bleeding of words pouring out of your mouth, words that drain your energy and load up your partner’s guns. And it’s a bandage, which keeps out the infection of partner’s harmful words in the future. It’s also like putting on a cast—your walking away keeps you from activities that would harm you while the healing gradually proceeds. Finally, it is a thermometer for you both, a show of your strength. When you do let go in peace, it lets your partner know how strong you are becoming, making them want the peace you are getting. And if you can’t let go in peace, it shows you that your spiritual antibodies are low, and that it’s time to plug yourself back into a stream of grace and wisdom to power you back up.

So where can you find this grace and wisdom? The best sources are friends and family who have been through these waters, who have learned for themselves how to detach from close loved ones when they’re hurting you. Because there’s so often not enough of these folks close by, you may find what you need in a support group or a twelve-step program. Or you could turn to a pastor or counselor for wisdom and strength. Whoever you turn to, you’ll need to use this outlet for those thoughts and feelings that would otherwise come out at home and fire up your spouse. You’ll need a professional to show you hard-to-see wisdom, such as all the hidden benefits in how detachment works for you, and how the party less interested in contact always has the more power in a relationship.

Once detached, what do you need to work on? You need to focus on goals your partner can’t sabotage, like these:

1. Forgive yourself, your spouse, and anybody else that has harmed either of you, or your marriage. Of course, to give forgiveness, you must first have received it, from God and ideally from someone else. You don’t need to trust your spouse or even like them, just accept them as is. Hope and pray they can somehow someday get closer to God, and in the meantime, wish them well. As a cause and effect of doing so, you will realize how Jesus’ commands to love and do good to your enemies is meant as a buffer that will protect you from getting too close to them. You see, enemies draw closer to fight you when you criticize them, and when you give love that you don’t need to get in return, they back away. Why? Because it makes them feel guilty that they can’t be kind to people who are kind to them, and frustrated that they can’t hurt or control you into acting like you’re taking their pain away.

2. Come to grips with who you are: your failures and successes from the past, your insecurities and needs of the present, your dangers and opportunities for the future, and the strengths and weaknesses in your personality as a whole—your blind spots, hang-ups, unhealed wounds, unfinished business, and unfulfilled dreams.

3. Take responsibility for getting your needs met now, and for taking care of yourself when others won’t. This will reveal and resolve any unhealthy dependencies that are causing you to cling to a painful connection with your spouse. Have faith that God and God’s people will help you bring some good things out of any bad situation

So in all this, your focus needs to be on your personal growth and healing, not your spouse’s. Only this will prepare you for either future outcome: a reconciled marriage or a divorce. Unless you are ready to go either way, you will both feel trapped, no matter which outcome you are moving toward. The first one of you to get yourself ready for either option will have all the power. God, your children, and the mental health of all concerned want that person to be you. It’s not so that you win, but that God and the children do. God gets a good witness or representative to show the world His grace, and your children get a role model and at last, one safe haven from the war between the parents.

The average person keeps going back and forth between the two different goals of reconciliation or divorce, and never sees that what it takes to do well at one outcome is exactly what it takes to do well at the other. The skills and insights above will be needed to escape from gridlock into either partnering on reconciliation, or partnering on divorce, or maybe accepting that your spouse isn’t ready to partner in anything.

Only now can you safely send the gridlock resolution game into its second half. You can now use your forward gears, by pushing things to start moving toward either a reconciliation or a divorce. Since you have learned to retreat in peace, you can now take the risk of going back on offense, with a new agenda: learning and using conflict management skills. This ongoing invitation will push your partner to either get in gear, or get out. How does this work?

It works because they can no longer bear living at close range when you are no longer taking their pain from them. Because they can’t bear the embarrassment when it becomes so obvious that they are the one not trying to get along, that they are the one who still can’t bear to live without the fight. The tide turns into the second half when you announce something like this:

"I am done with this fighting and this stand-off. I am going to resume communicating with you, but now, only in healthy ways that esteem us both. If you join me in this, we will solve our problems, and our mutual respect will soon enough give rise to new ways of relating, as husband and wife, or as co-parenting partners in divorce. To learn to express ourselves differently, we’ll need to pick a professional counselor (therapist or pastor) to train us. He or she will teach us to identify unhealthy messages, and to reframe them in positive ways."

[How can you tell what’s healthy and what’s not? The simplest, most effective, and by far the best researched list of communication do’s and don’t’s is the one from John Gottman and Nan Silver. You can’t argue with solid research that proves what behaviors make people happy growing old with each other, and which ones lead to divorce. At last we know these two lists of behaviors. You can get Gottman and Silver’s book Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, visit the website, or I can send you two old columns I did describing the behaviors that will produce a happy marriage and the ones that will lead to divorce. One article describes the seven healthy behaviors that research has shown to resolve problems, and the other presents the eight unhealthy behaviors that put problems on steroids, including the "four horsemen of the apocalypse": criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. These habits are taught in the Bible, and my articles give biblical references for the behaviors. I recommend you choose one of many marital counselors in your area that will use those guidelines for teaching you both what you will and won’t do in communicating with each other. . . . Now back to what you will someday be ready to say to your spouse:]

"So we don’t argue over what is and isn’t a healthy expression of ourselves toward each other, in the spirit of Matthew 18: 15-17, we will certainly need a counselor to tell us. That way the counselor can blow the whistle on hurtful talk, coach us in kinder words, and think of compromises to make bridges between our conflicting needs and views.

"You are certainly welcome to suggest a different counselor, or a different time to meet, but until I hear that you have done so, to get the ball rolling toward a new partnership working toward new goals, I have made an appointment for us on ____ at _____ with _________ at ______(phone ______, website ______). Your decision to come will express your willingness to work with me on the goals above, to build a mutually respectful relationship that has more distance and less love between us (divorce), or else one that has more love and less distance (a good marriage). We’ll choose together which way we go. It will depend really on how compatible our values and beliefs turn out to be. At last we will clearly be able to state what we value and believe in, doing so within a caring atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.

"Now if you don’t choose to embrace healthy communication with me, I will give you what your choice will be saying you want, a divorce. I know you wouldn’t be able respect yourself for staying married to a person you can’t respect or trust, so I will offer you a mediated divorce so that we can pursue that new distance respectfully as partners. If you choose not to come see this counselor, your absence will likewise signal you do not want to learn these things, and I will use the time to plan a better life for me and our children in light of this decision on your part. So we will both be choosing divorce, you by rejecting the chance for learning to get along, and me by rejecting the status quo.

"Understand that our getting a divorce will not end our hopes of ever being happily married together down the road. That will only happen after one of us dies or joins up with another mate. Divorce just means that we are breaking up our sexual and financial partnership so that we can both heal up, and decide how we want to get on with our lives. Whether these two new lives will ever fit back together in a new marriage only time will tell.

"We’ll use one professional to broker the terms of our divorce through mediation. Partnering in a respectful divorce will be better for us and our children than staying in a disrespectful marriage. Being from a broken home will be better for them than being in a broken home. They will be going between two households of peace instead of living with two parents at war.

"There is one more way we could settle our differences. We could each use an attorney to fight for us, argue our cases in court. This is how greedy, insecure, impatient, stupid people who love their children settle things, by hiring greedy, secure, patient, smart people (lawyers) who don’t give a rat’s tail about the children. These mercenaries act like they believe their clients are innocent victims of their guilty villain spouses, when they know down below the hard shells around their hearts that they will get the last laugh, as the professional villains who make us and our children their victims. This path would maximize the number of lies told, the time it takes to get things settled, the amount of money we pay out to professionals (it’s less money to pay counselors and a mediator), and most importantly, maximize the emotional damage done to our children and their parents.

"If you go this way, I will be forced to follow suit. We’ll both lose, we’ll all suffer for it, but all the blood will be on your hands. Just know that I forgive you in advance, because it’s not worth it to carry a grudge, not when I can abide in a state of never-ending grace. If you ever decide to join me, I know somebody else will have to lead you there. And I will always keep praying that someone will, because I will always love you enough to want you to find the good life."

Twenty years ago psychologist Willard Harley’s book His Needs, Her Needs became very popular. His research found men to need primarily the following five things from their wives, in this order: sexual fulfillment, recreational companionship, an attractive spouse, domestic support, and admiration. Women on the other hand, he found reported needing the following from their husbands: affection, conversation, honesty and openness, financial support, and family commitment.

My own experience would change these lists somewhat. The man’s list would have less importance on the wife’s looks and more on her being financially faithful and emotionally stable. The woman’s list I have less problems with, but they need kindness (forgiveness, acceptance, gentleness during conflict, etc.) and fidelity right up there too.

Every marriage needs a check-up from time to time, to insure that each understands what the other is needing more of. Consider the following seventeen needs, which ones you need more of in your marriage or love relationship. List your top five needs (what’s most important to you personally), and the top five you want more of from your partner. Then ask your partner to do the same. Finally, exchange lists and talk about it.

Admiration: knowing your mate is proud of you

Affection: physical and verbal warmth, "I’ve missed you"; compliments

Attractive Spouse: good looks, health, energy

Conversation: spending time talking and sharing with each other

Domestic Support: keeping a comfortable home; cooking, cleaning, restocking, picking up

Family Commitment: Child care, spending time together as a family

Fidelity and Loyalty: with sex, affection, information, time, and money

Financial Support: faithfully, earning, saving, spending, sharing, and appreciating money

God: God is loved through worship, prayer, service, and fellowship with other believers

Honesty and Openness: sharing thoughts, feelings, events, life stories

Kindness: forgiveness, acceptance, "I’m sorry", making amends in conflicts

Recreational Companionship: having fun together

Sense of Humor: Good-natured teasing and light-heartedness

Sexual Fulfillment: including romance, tenderness, flirting, and seduction, as you might like

Socializing Together: Enjoying get-togethers with friends

Stress Tolerance: optimism, emotional stability, ability to handle frustration

Other: Describe one other thing you feel you need more of

 If you’re not into math or written homework, you might just want to take two or three of these a week, and discuss them over a dinner date (oops, is that another need?). Be prepared to say how you feel you’re doing at fulfilling this need in your partner, and how well your partner is doing at giving to you. Just talking about a need is a great start toward fulfilling it. Even if all is well, showing appreciation helps to strengthen your relationship even further.

If one of you resists both writing and talking about it, that’s a pretty big problem. That would be sending this message: "Not only am I unwilling to meet that need, I don’t even consider it important. That part of you doesn’t matter to me." In this society of so much infidelity and divorce, it won’t take long for that I-don’t-care attitude to kill a relationship.

I couldn’t resist this shameless cheese-tart title. I’m just hoping you won’t have to buy your Maxim or Cosmo this month. If they printed this, they’d lose readers. Because our focus here will be on the primary sex organ, the brain, I won’t need to mention any body parts or sexual acts.

I am going to give you a technique though, one move that should heat up your bedroom better than anything you’ve ever done. I didn’t figure it out until I was in my early thirties, from trial-and-error learning. I’ve come to call it pre-validated tenderness.

Ten years later I heard another term for it in a seminar out in San Francisco given by the man many consider America’s leading sex expert, psychologist Dr. David Schnarch. He calls this approach "self-validated intimacy", and he rightly warns this is not for rookies.

You have to bring two things with you into the bedroom: self-awareness and self-esteem. You need to know who you are without your mate, and you need to like who you are. That’s the self-validated feature: you have to punch your own "I’m OK" ticket before you come to your mate. You can’t go in feeling insecure or needy and expect your mate to fix that.

You need to come to love with your desires already stirred up, by nothing more than thinking about what the two of you might do and feel together. You bring in your own bucket of nice warm passion. If you’re asking your mate to make you feel OK about yourself physically and romantically, you need to fix the hole in your bucket.

You have to pour in your own desire before contact, and concentrate on the full part of your passion bucket as you approach. Don’t focus on your mate’s bucket either, hoping he or she will come on to you like some star in a romance novel or porn movie. You’re taking all the initiative here.

This means you have to build and maintain a good body image, to feel good about seeing yourself in the mirror stepping out of the shower. Eating, exercising, and evaluating your body in healthy ways beforehand is the "attitude foreplay" contributed by the mighty sex organ between your ears.

It takes some considerable faith to feel and believe that you are not a consuming connoisseur of beauty, passion and love, but rather a confident carrier. It helps to see your body as belonging as much to your maker and your mate as to yourself. That faith is both a gift from God, and your gift to God.

Let’s assume now that you are feeling good about yourself and are confidently carrying your desires to give (not receive) affection to your mate. You have another mental preparation to make before expressing yourself. You can’t be concerned about the outcome. It can’t matter how far you go, or whether your mate even agrees to get started.

It’s got to be rewarding enough for you just to express yourself and offer your gift of "I’m full of good stuff and so are you", regardless of whether it’s received, reciprocated or rejected. You’re determined and set to feel better about yourself no matter what. You suited up, showed up, and even if you get shot down, you will shore up your self-esteem and shine up your outlook.

It’s win-win. Even if the mate doesn’t love him- or herself enough to receive and return your gift, you hold your head high. You’re taking the high road in, and you’ll take the high road out. Anything you receive in return of course makes it a big win for you both, but remember it’s just gravy. You bring the meat, and by appreciating yourself and your mate, you eat good every time.

So these may not be your actual words, but the attitude needs to be: "Hey, check me out. I’m wanting to give you some sweet lovin’, right now, or later, whatever. How about it?" And worst case rejection scenario is you walk away with this look and attitude: "I’m sorry you feel that way. It’s your loss, Baby, because I’m enjoying my desires. I’m still loving us both, so I’m good."

Are you wanting to give this article to your mate? Defeats the purpose. Cut it out, put it away, and wait until he or she asks, "What’s got into you? I like it!" One more benefit to you: do it consistently, and it’s a sure-fire way to pull yourself out of a boring love life. I guarantee that soon enough your mate will play you or trade you. Either way, trust me, you’ll be better off.

Last week’s column was about double standardswhich are privileges given to one spouse but not the other. We learned that when power and privilege are distributed unevenly in a marriage, those underprivileged spouses over time come to believe they are indeed second-class, unworthy of being trusted. They take more and more of their identity, worth, confidence, and direction from their arrogant, over-privileged spouses, which makes the power imbalance grow larger every year. So what can an insecure junior partner do to address and correct these unfair double standards?

1. Clarify a mission statement, to reveal the actual working purpose of your marriage. To find out what the mission statement is now, put your spouse on the defensive here and ask him. If he won’t give one, propose what the double standards indicate: "This purpose of this marriage has been to increase your self-confidence, self-esteem, and enjoyment of life by drawing from mine." Tell him you’re assuming that’s what the mission statement has been unless he tells you another one and pledges to you and other adults that he’ll live by it.

The institution of marriage and its vows were designed to increase the quality of life of both partners, and through their equal partnership, the lives of those they touch, especially their families of origin and their families of creation (their children and their families). Ask him what’s wrong with that mission statement. As your personal declaration of interdependence, tell him you are switching your loyalty now from the old, imbalanced mission statement to the original model of a partnership that blesses each other and the world.

2. Realize that as the up-til-now underprivileged partner, you are actually the stronger and better person. You are strong enough to take care of two (or three, five, whatever) people instead of one, and without benefit of much support from outside or inside the marriage at that. You have developed an unselfish lifestyle, which makes you a good person, worthy of honor and privilege. Believe it, and then tell your spouse this truth. This awareness changes everything.

3. You take the lead now, leading at least yourself, and start giving yourself the same privileges you give your spouse. Don’t wait for your spouse to quit using double standards—that never works. Oh you can and should ask him first to embrace you as an equal, but don’t hold your breath. He probably won’t realize how strong and worthy of trust you are until he sees you acting this out in your life.

4. Do the same with responsibilities: start evening up the load. You can’t make your spouse take responsibilities, but you can give a few of them up. You just tell others that you are letting your spouse decide how that gets done, so that whatever falls between the cracks reflects on your spouse, and not you.

5. If you agree with all this but aren’t ready yet to put it into action, start violating your double standards one at a time. The best one to start with is telling others what’s been going on. Talk with friends, family, a counselor, a pastor. Break the code of silence and talk with people who keep your secrets, don’t take your side against your spouse, and whose marriages are true partnerships.

Use these people as outlets for your fear, guilt, and doubts so your spouse won’t see yours, and thus will be free to feel his own without projecting them onto you. Use your supporters as inlets for courage, wisdom, love, joy, and peace, so your spouse will see them, and since they are contagious, will feel his own. Your confidantes will encourage you and teach you how and why to start dismantling your double standards. Trust that in time your spouse will follow your lead though it may be against his values and wishes, just a you once followed him against yours.

When marriage allows one of its partners privileges the other doesn’t have, it is a double standard. Most marriages have quite a few, by mutual agreement, which is no big deal.

It’s a problem when most of the double standards favor the same partner. Any double standard is trouble when, according to unbiased and well informed experts, the underprivileged partner is undeserving of his or her lower status. The problem is that partners given a second-class status before long come to believe they deserve it.

Marriage is set up to be a partnership, not a dependency. Both the civil and religious vows required are quite mutual, creating a partnership of peers. When that partnership degenerates, when one partner becomes very insecure about loosing the other, when both are convinced that one could do much better than the other on the open marriage market, love starts to spoil and smell bad. One partner becoming insecure is a problem the marriage partnership is designed to correct, not exploit.

Here are some of the privileges I see most often in my office being doled out in unfairly double standards. Sometimes there are obvious justifying circumstances, but it is a danger sign if one marriage partner enjoys a lion’s share of the following privileges:

How the two families of relatives are treated

Deciding where the couple eats, vacations, or goes for fun together

Having lots of free time to eat, vacation, or have fun without the other

Spending money on one’s own clothes, hobbies, entertainment, or creature comforts

Deciding who gets invited over to the house

Setting behavioral standards for children and grandchildren

Flirting with the opposite sex

Accusing the mate of flirting, or disloyal thoughts and behavior

Deciding whether, when, and where the couple goes to church

Having confidantes with whom one can talk about the marriage

Improving or neglecting one’s health, fitness, and appearance

Knowing or determining the marriage’s assets or debts

Relaxing around the house when the mate is present

Deciding where the couple lives

Deciding whether and where to work outside the home

Deciding how the house looks (inside or out)

Making accusations of partner’s poor mental health

Receiving an apology from the mate when hurt by that mate

Judging and punishing the mate for misdeeds

Making messes one doesn’t have to clean up

Doing most of the talking

Being appreciated and gifted on birthdays and special holidays

Teasing each other

Initiating lovemaking with successful results

Being complimented by the other, in public or in private

Criticizing the mate, in public or in private

Expressing opinions without rebuke that differ from mate’s

Being given trust that can be demanded instead of earned

Can you think of others? If so, I’m developing a list for my clients, so please email me. More next week about how to address double standards in your marriage. For starters, cut out this article. You’re going to need it.

Dr. John Gottman’s research has demonstrated seven communication styles which will cause a couple to be truly happy with each other. Elaborate explanations for these helpful habits can be found in Gottman’s book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999).

Enhance your love maps

Regularly work at trying to get a fresh understanding of your mate. Maintain an active curiosity about what your mate is thinking, feeling and longing for. Once every month or two, take a nearly day-long date as friends. Maybe drive to a state or local park, or a nearby city. Take turns asking each other open-ended questions about your past, present and future (a great list of 60 questions is on pages 52-4 of the book), and remember what you hear.

Nurture your fondness and admiration of each other

Be aware of your appreciation of your mate and then express it. Help your partner by asking for these expressions, and then telling an event you’ve experienced or something you’ve done for which you need appreciation (taking care of your house, body, work, parenting, bill-paying, etc.).

Turn toward each other instead of away.

Gottman’s research shows that what he calls a "stress-reducing conversation" (described on pp. 87-92) is the biggest key to preventing divorce. You pick an ideal time of day to share without fatigue or distraction the joys, concerns, pressures of the day, and what you need from your partner for the next 24 hours. There’s no blame or analysis, just each trying to understand and meet the partner’s needs as presented.

Let your partner influence you.

This is 180 degrees opposite of what most people try to do, but when you choose to surrender power because you know yours comes from the inside, you win love and respect. Look for ways to sacrifice your will for the marriage without expecting anything in return. Be unselfish in decisions about sex, parenting, in-laws, friends, housework, vacations, recreation, entertainment, or time and money management. Being open to change is contagious.

Solve only your solvable problems.

One big finding in Gottman’s research is that many of the problems couples argue about are unsolvable. You just need to agree to disagree and let it go. Signs of an unsolvable problem are when your disagreements are long-standing, painfully intense, or taken personally. In some marital arguments, no one is right. There is no absolute reality, only two subjective realities. For problems that can be solved, the research showed it especially helped to do five things: soften the start-up (how you bring it up), try to repair your mate’s hurt feelings, soothe yourself as you go, compromise with each other (deliberate give and take), and be tolerant of each other’s faults.

Overcome gridlock.

Get past the stuck points by accepting each other as is. Agree to live with the problem. Pray the serenity prayer for acceptance. Perhaps you might even dare to open up a new and deeper dialog, to discover and appreciate dreams and dispositions that had previously been hidden.

Create shared meaning.

Discover and then embrace a purpose or mission for your marriage. Discover what you can do as a team to make the world a better place. Build some rituals and traditions which will strengthen your family. Actively and publicly support each other’s goals and missions in life, so that each partner’s commitments feel more and more like a joint effort.

I know all this is a lot to digest. The important thing is not to understand it all, but to pick two or three of these habits to work on for yourself. Harping on your partner to make these changes will do more harm than good. What works much better is doing something yourself, and then asking your spouse to try doing the same. Showing the genuine peace and contentment you get from doing something good in the right spirit is generally the best way to motivate your mate to do the same. Have faith, and give it time.

A recent issue of Psychotherapy Networker reviews 25 years of research on counseling, and concludes that the most convincing and influential work was done by Dr. John Gottman on marriage and divorce. (Dr. Gottman was also the only researcher listed in the top ten most influential therapists.)

Originally a mathematician, Gottman’s research was well designed and funded. Over 3000 couples agreed to come periodically to spend weekends in his "Love Lab" overlooking Pugent Sound in Seattle. It was a set of apartments knowingly equipped with various recording devices where couples would come spend a couple of nights, and then learn from what their recorded behavior showed.

By continuing to study these couples over 30 years, he was able to see which ones divorced, separated, stayed unhappily married, or became more and more happily married. Gottman is now able to observe a couple having an argument, and predict with "uncanny, 91% accuracy" who will and who will not get divorced. Four behaviors emerged as the primary predictors and causes of divorce. Though himself Jewish, he refers to these four toxic behaviors using a metaphor from New Testament end-times prophecy in Revelations 6, calling them "The Four Horsemen of the Marital Apocalypse." They are:


Gottman’s research shows this is the most harmful of these four mistakes. Contempt is active behavior which shows disgust for the partner, such as sarcasm, cynicism, mockery, sneering, eye-rolling, hostile humor, belligerent threats or provocations, and name-calling. These behaviors send the message, "You aren’t even worthy of my attention."


More than just a complaint which focuses on a behavior ("I hate it when you ignore me."), criticism adds insults about the person’s character or motives: "You ignore me because you don’t care, you’re lazy and stupid, you’re crazy." Complaints are necessary to solve problems, but criticism undermines problem-solving, and marriages.


When spouses raise a question or a complaint, one of the most natural ways to respond is one of the most harmful to the marriage: throwing it back in their faces. It blames the partner for questioning you, and escalates the conflict. This can be done by changing the subject, questioning the spouse’s motive, or throwing up a counter-complaint: "Well what about when YOU . . . ?" It avoids the issue and puts the spouse on the defensive.


Criticism, contempt, and defensiveness can lead to one partner just tuning the other out, putting up a stone wall. This effectively blocks all communication, and so it is a passive but very damaging expression of contempt. For many reasons in our culture, the stonewall is more likely to be put up by the husband.

The Four Dragons as I call them are four more behaviors Gottman has found can often lead to divorce. Harsh start-ups are beginning a discussion with threats or insults, rather than by raising a problem with a possible solution. Flooding is an intense flurry of hurtful behaviors, one after the other so rapidly that the spouse cannot physically or emotionally absorb or respond to one before the next one hits. Failed repair attempts are when the partner doesn’t cooperate with genuine, heartfelt efforts one makes to repair damage done. Bad memories are old wounds from the past that have not been healed, and thus bleed over into coloring a person’s view of the spouse.

It won’t work to use this list to point out partner’s mistakes, but it will help if each of you uses it to monitor and correct his or her own behavior. The research geeks over at the Love Lab say that focusing on how you behave is the best way to make your marriage a success. They have also found what positive behaviors will make a marriage really cook, and they’re presented on the back.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt