So maybe the above picture is a little bit of an embellishment when seeking to describe the conflict that happens in a lot of marriages? Or maybe it isn’t?
My bride and I are going on seventeen years of marriage and though there are many roads of conflict we have often traveled, we are, by God’s grace, learning more and more to not go down some roads. But we still do at times. What roads am I referring to? And what do I even mean by road? By “roads,” I’m referring to actions, words, or thoughts that a married person does that in no way exemplify a love for Jesus or their spouse; they do nothing to build up; they do nothing to encourage; they do nothing to bring reconciliation. Specifically, I am referring to criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
In his New York Times Bestseller, the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr, John Gottman shares what he describes as The Four Horsemen.
Horsemen 1: Criticism. Despite what some individuals sometimes communicate, you will always have complaints about your spouse; how you articulate that complaint can be described as a soft start-up to the conversation or a harsh start-up. A complaint has three parts: 1) Here’s how I feel; 2) About a very specific situation; 3) And here’s what I need prefer, want, or need. In contrast, Gottman writes, “a criticism is global and expresses negative feelings or opinions about the other’s character or personality.” Two very common forms of criticism utilize the words, always or never.
Horsemen 2: Contempt. This all-too-often posture arises from a sinful, damaging, and hurtful belief that you are superior to your partner. It is a deep form of disrespect. It manifests itself in sarcasm, eye-rolling, mockery, and even hostile humor.
Horsemen 3: Defensiveness. Rather than deescalate a conflict, a defensive spirit escalates it and can do so quickly. Gottman writes, “criticism, contempt, and defensiveness don’t always gallop into a home in strict order. They function more like a relay match — handing the baton off to each other over and over again.”
Horsemen 4: Stonewalling. Gottman verbalizes what so many couples understand: “In marriages where discussions begin with a harsh start-up, where criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness and vice versa, eventually one partner tunes out.”
If you’re like me, and I have a sneaky suspicion that there are many commonalities between you and me, then what do we do? There are obvious limitations to a blog post, despite the length, profundity, and wisdom that a post might offer but let me give several truths or “handles” to help you:
- Union with Jesus. A Christian’s union with Jesus empowers them to love others well. And though I don’t have the time in this post to extrapolate this rich theological truth, it is indeed foundational to having right relationships with everyone you come in contact with.
- Contentment in Jesus. Megan Hill in her daily devotional Contentment: Seeing God’s Goodness writes, “the good news of the gospel is not simply that Christ tells us how to be content but also that Christ is powerfully at work in us to bring contentment.” Finding contentment in a spouse’s response, winning an argument, stonewalling your spouse in a childish vindictive manner brings temporary satisfaction and will bring about rottenness in your bones.
- Belief in God’s goodness. Complaining, criticism, and the other “horsemen” flow from a heart that is not satisfied in Jesus and an underlying belief that God is not good; God is good and it is in Him that we have an unshakable hope. Our fulfillment and hope are not in our spouse, a right response, or our circumstances. This is a hard truth to believe and live out.
- Lean into grace. Again, Megan Hill writes, “…we must plainly acknowledge that — on our own — we have nothing and we deserve nothing. This is not a comfortable truth. We each would like to think that what we have, whether abilities or relationships of possessions, we have by right or merit.” Christians are people of grace and that same matchless, amazing grace that they have received is to be given to our spouse. When you ponder deeply what you deserve it will begin to move your heart towards giving to your spouse what they do not deserve.
- Don’t waste conflict. Too often, we walk through conflict (and contribute sinfully I might add) and fail to reflect on what the Spirit of God might be teaching us. I am not, however, advocating running to conflict, but simply looking in the rearview mirror and asking questions that will help us ascertain what we might learn, how we contributed to the dysfunction, where would Jesus have us change, and a myriad of other questions put forth to examine our motives, thoughts, affections, actions, and words.