Does your marriage need a tune-up?

tom-the-photographer-627622-unsplash.jpg

I think we could all could use some help and encouragement. That is why I am considering hosting a marriage retreat in Peachtree City, Georgia. Over the past 4 years, as I have conducted marriage seminars, couples have asked if I would consider doing something near Atlanta, Georgia.

Peachtree City (visitpeachtreecity.com) is a beautiful suburb just south of the Atlanta airport. The setting would be in a comfortable hotel with a limited group of married couples. The weekend would be informal with some teaching and practical exercises, as well as some time to yourself to reflect and relax. Some topics to be covered are:

  • strengthening your friendship
  • managing your conflict, especially the issues that keep coming up
  • growing in intimacy

If this interests you, please fill out this form and we will keep you updated:

Name *
Name
Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.

Four Pillars for a Lasting Marriage

How do you keep the song in your relationship? It seems as if most couples drift apart over time. They get married, build careers, raise the children and then wake up one morning and wonder who the other is. While each person in a marriage is an individual, once you are married you become a team. How you keep the team together is everything. Marriage expert, John Gottman puts it this way:

Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together--a culture rich with symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you and that lead you to understand who you are as a family (p. 261)

This is Gottman’s seventh principle. He calls it Create Shared Meaning. Before we look at the last of the seven principles, let’s remember the first six with a brief paraphrase in parentheses:

  1. Enhance Your Love Maps (never stop getting to know each other)
  2. Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration (stay positive)
  3. Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away (seek re-connection)
  4. Let Your Partner Influence You (appreciate one another’s strengths)
  5. Solve Your Solvable Problems (fix what you can fix)
  6. Overcome Gridlock (learn to live with lifelong differences)

Create Shared Meaning

In this seventh principle, Gottman is moving in the direction of a deeper spiritual foundation that all marriages need to thrive. Marriage can’t just be limited to two human beings forming a deep friendship. As important as that is, there must be something transcendent. Something bigger than the marriage that gives it meaning outside of the relationship. He calls this the “Four Pillars of Shared Meaning.”

Pillar One: Rituals of Connection

Gottman says that “creating rituals in your marriage (and with your children) can be a powerful antidote to the tendency to disconnect” (p. 263). What does he mean by ritual?

A ritual is a structured event or routine that you each enjoy and depend on and that both reflects and reinforces your sense of togetherness. Most of us are familiar with rituals from childhood, whether going to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, lighting Kwanzaa candles or the menorah, sharing pumpkin pie at Grandma’s Thanksgiving, attending family reunions, etc. However, it’s common for people not to discuss what these traditions symbolize to them. In his book The Intentional Family, sociologist William Doherty highlighted the importance of couples creating rituals that are intentional and meaningful. By recognizing the ongoing value and significance of the rituals you each bring to your relationship, and the new ones you create together, you further your identity as a family. (p. 264)

Pillar Two: Support For Each Other’s Roles

The more a couple shares a similar vision of the role they play in the marriage, the deeper the connection. This is not only connected to how husband and wife view their roles with each other, it also is connected to what they value in terms of parenting and what they want to pass along to their children. Gottman is clear to say that this does not mean complete agreement on every matter. Instead, he emphasizes that there should be enough cohesion between husband and wife that they work alongside one another as a team.

Pillar Three: Shared Goals

A common vision for accomplishing deep and meaningful goals creates a deep bond between husband and wife. Raising children with specific beliefs and convictions, giving generously of time and money to special projects that serve the community, or caring for extended family as they age are all examples of significant shared goals.

Pillar Four: Shared Values and Symbols

These values and symbols are often associated with fundamental beliefs that arise out of one’s religious beliefs and commitments.

Values and beliefs form the final pillar of shared meaning in a marriage. These are philosophical tenets that guide how you wish to conduct your lives. For some people, values are deeply rooted in religious conviction. (p. 270)

In his book, Gottman provides helpful questions for a couple to determine where they need to grow according to each of these four pillars. What is most helpful is how practical the questions and exercises are. Most couples can grasp the big concepts, it's knowing how to specifically implement them that is the challenge.

Gottman and The Gospel

In this final section, Gottman is attempting to tether couples to something transcendent; something bigger than their own marriage. I find this immensely important because this is exactly what Scripture does with much greater clarity. The Apostle Paul connects the covenant of marriage to the bigger covenant relationship that each spouse has with the true and living God. He also says that marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship with his people. Hear Paul’s familiar words in Ephesians 5:31-33:

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Notice how Paul goes back and forth between the marriage between spouses and God’s relationship to his people. Paul understands the priorities of the vertical and horizontal dimensions in a lasting marriage.

The overall strength of John Gottman’s work is the insight he has gained through hours of observation, research and reflection. He has picked up on the contours for what makes relationships work. The micro-moments of interaction between spouses is critical to the health and well-being of a marriage. This insight alone is worth pondering and acting upon.

This is where we can most learn from Gottman. It may be tempting to casually dismiss his findings and argue that the Bible has already captured what Gottman has observed. But what I have found in my own marriage and in those whom I have helped, is how easy it is to overlook the obvious. We can articulate the grand themes of Scripture and talk about a I Corinthians 13 kind of love, but most of us don’t know what that looks like in our daily interactions.

Any thoughtful Christian can see where the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection intersect and add beautiful and substantive depth to what Gottman observes and offers at the level of attitudes, emotions and behaviors. We can also thank God for John Gottman for his research, insights and commitment to marriage.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane

Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.

Four Things to Help Overcome Gridlock in Your Marriage

Have you ever found yourself in a place in your marriage where you and your spouse disagree and it seems like there is no way forward? At some point, in any marriage, this is a possibility. It happens when you can’t learn to live with your perpetual problems. According to John Gottman every couple has two kinds of problems; perpetual (70%) and solvable (30%). How a couple handles the perpetual problems is critical to avoiding gridlock.

Here are some possible issues that can be the source of gridlock:

  • She wants another child, he doesn’t
  • He wants to adopt, she doesn’t
  • She wants to attend this church, he wants to attend another
  • He wants to go out and enjoy friends, she would rather stay at home
  • She doesn’t mind clutter, he can’t stand the site of dust
  • He wants a dog, she wants a cat
  • She wants him to lead family devotions, he wants her to
  • He wants a mini-SUV, she wants a mini-van
  • She wants to decorate the house, he wants to increase their giving to charity
  • He hates being late, she doesn’t mind being late

If you take a good look at the various types of issues that can lead to gridlock, you will notice that it can be anything! It can be something as significant as having children or a spiritual conviction to something as minor as how clean and orderly you prefer your house to be. Gottman says this:

Whether they seem important or petty to outsiders, all gridlocked disagreements share four characteristics. You’ll know you’ve reached gridlock if:
1. You’ve had the same argument again and again with no resolution.
2. Neither of you can address the issue with humor, empathy, or affection.
3. The issue is becoming increasingly polarizing as time goes on.
4. Compromise seems impossible because it would mean selling out–giving up something important and core to your beliefs, values, or sense of self.

Does that sound familiar? Do you and your spouse or another couple you know describe an issue in their marriage in this way? If so, what can you do? Here are four things, according to John Gottman:

1. Become a Dream Detective

According to Gottman, gridlock reveals that there are core values and beliefs underneath gridlock. So while the issue may look simple on the surface, there is much more going on underneath.

To navigate your way out of gridlock, you have to first understand that no matter how seemingly insignificant the issue, gridlock is a sign that you each have dreams for your life that the other isn’t aware of, hasn’t acknowledged, or doesn’t respect. By dreams I mean the hopes, aspirations, and wishes that are part of your identity and give purpose and meaning to your life (p.238).

In order to avoid gridlock, you must become aware of the dreams that are underneath the conflict, begin to respect your spouse’s dreams and learn to incorporate their dreams into the relationship. When you have reached an impasse, there is a loss of respect, fondness and admiration. You must reclaim that. The way you do that is by asking your spouse what the area of gridlock means to them. What dream is it attached to?

As you listen, you may begin to see the deeper logic and start to reconnect with your spouse. This may seem simplistic, but it isn’t. It is never simplistic to make attempts to understand your spouse and listen to them as they share their deeper dreams and aspirations.

2. Remain Calm

Discussing issues that involve gridlock can be very emotional because it has become a source of tension that has remained in the marriage for a long time. To bring it up again will require wisdom. Gottman suggests that if either spouse begins to feel overwhelmed, it is important to stop the discussion and take a 20 minute break. During that 20 minute break, do something that is calming (read, go for a walk, listen to some music, pray).

3. Reach a Temporary Compromise

Gottman says that this next step will allow you to continue to discuss the issue. It will likely never go away but you are seeking to “defang” the issue that is causing gridlock. You do this by separating the issue in two ways and drawing two circles:

“Nonnegotiable areas” circle: These are the aspects of the conflict that you absolutely cannot give on without violating your basic needs or core values.

“Areas of flexibility” circle: This category includes all parts of the issue where you can be flexible, because they are not so “hot” for you.

Gottman encourages the couple to make the nonnegotiable circle as small as they can and the flexibility circle as big as possible. The couple should make an attempt over the next two months and then come back to the table and evaluate how they are doing. This will not solve the problem but it will help a couple live more peacefully with one another.

Here is an example of reaching a temporary compromise from Gottman’s book:

Kyle and Nicole

Gridlocked problem: Very different comfort levels with expressing emotions.

1. Detect and Discuss the Dreams Within the Conflict
Nicole’s Dream: Being emotional is part of her self-identity and part of what gives meaning to her life.
Kyle’s Dream: He sees being emotional as a weakness.

2. Remain Calm
They both agree that if either starts to feel overwhelmed in the discussing that it is okay to take a break and come back to discuss more.

3. Reach Temporary Compromise (Two-Circled Method)

Nonnegotiable areas:
Nicole’s: She cannot stop reacting with great passion to life.
Kyle’s: He cannot become a highly emotional person just to please her.

Areas of flexibility: They both accept that their spouse cannot change a basic personality trait.

Temporary Compromise: They will be respectful of their differences in this area. He will be receptive to her need to talk about and share feelings. She will accept when he cannot do this.

Ongoing Conflict: They will continue to have very different approaches to expressing emotion. (p.257)

4. Say “Thank You”

Dealing with gridlock is never easy. That is why it is so important to end the discussion on a positive note. This will be a process that won’t be “fixed” quickly. You will know that progress is being made when the issue feels less loaded and scary.

Gottman and the Gospel

What are we to make of this approach to gridlock? First, Gottman will tell you that he has seen this work for many couples. That, by itself, ought to get our attention. Why would we not want to utilize some basic skills to help couples who are in the midst of gridlock? But can we offer couples something more than helpful skills? Better, can we offer them something that strengthens their ability to face gridlock in their marriages? I think so.

Listen carefully to the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, in any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Pondering the self-sacrificial work of Christ in our behalf and praying to Father, Son and Spirit for grace will certainly enable a couple to move forward with humility, thinking more carefully about their spouse. This does not mean that it will not be a process or that it will be easy. It does mean that there is something unique about tapping into a power and resource outside of ourselves.

Remember, listening to another person’s dreams, remaining calm, seeking compromise and expressing appreciation do not come naturally. Thankfully, we have Someone who has redeemed us and is “purifying for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14).

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane

Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.

The Most Important Ingredient to Improve Your Marriage

What fuels a strong, resilient, enjoyable marriage? Most people would immediately answer with suggestions like better communication and the ability to resolve conflicts. As important as those skills are, it is actually much more simple than that. According to marriage and relationship expert John Gottman, it boils down to one thing: friendship!

Why is Friendship so Important?

When you think about it, the most important dynamic needed in a strong marriage is what Gottman calls Positive Sentiment Override, which is just another way of talking about friendship.

What can make a marriage work is surprisingly simple. Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. (p.4)

The concept of PSO was first proposed by University of Oregon psychologist Robert Weiss. It simply means that their positive thoughts about each other are so strong that they override any negative thoughts that they have. When conflict emerges, they are able to weather the challenge because they have already built relationship resilience. It doesn’t mean that a couple won’t ever struggle, but it will take a much bigger conflict to rock the relationship.

The entire work of John Gottman has been less about predicting divorce as it has been about helping couples build PSO. Because he has observed so many couples in his 40+ years of research, he provides useful relational skills that can deeply enhance a marriage or any relationship.

What Does Friendship Look Like?

Here are the first three of seven ways that Gottman provides for couples to connect and build their friendship with one another:

Enhance Your Love Maps    

What does this mean? It means that you never stop getting to know your spouse. So often, through the mundane monotony of life and the hectic seasons of marriage, career and family life, it is easy to start ignoring your spouse. Instead, you always want to be inquisitive about your spouse. What he or she likes, dislikes, fears, and finds comfort in.

They keep remembering the major events in each other’s history, and they keep updating their information as the facts and feelings of their spouse’s world change. When she orders him a salad, she knows what kind of dressing he likes. If she works late, he’ll think to record her favorite TV show. He could tell you how she’s feeling about her boss and exactly how to get to her office from the elevator. He knows that religion is important to her but that deep down she has doubts. She knows that he fears being too much like his father and considers himself a “free spirit.” They know each other’s life goals, worries and hopes.
Without such a love map, you can’t really know your spouse. And if you don’t really know someone, how can you truly love them? No wonder the biblical term for sexual love is to “know.” (p.54)

Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration

Another practical way that you build your friendship or increase PSO is through nurturing your fondness and admiration for your spouse. The tendency in any marriage is to slowly let your guard down and not work at thinking and expressing the things you appreciate about one another. It is much more natural and easy to start finding fault and pointing out the things you don’t like.

At first, this may all seem obvious to the point of being ridiculous: People who are happily married like each other. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be happily married. But fondness and admiration can be fragile unless you remain aware of how crucial they are to the friendship that is at the core of any good marriage. By simply reminding yourself of your spouse’s positive qualities--even as you grapple with each other’s flaws--you can prevent a happy marriage from deteriorating. The simple reason is that fondness and admiration are antidotes for contempt. (p.71)

The important thing to know about this aspect of building the friendship is looking for the little things about your spouse that show up in a normal day. If you start looking, you may be surprised at how fortunate you are to be married to your best friend!

Turn Toward Each Other

The third of seven ways that you can build your friendship or PSO is by turning toward one another. This is a critical way that a couple builds trust. Trust is foundational to any robust friendship. Gottman calls these interactions “bids.”

In marriage, couples are always making what I call “bids” for each other’s attention, affection, humor, or support. Bids can be as minor as asking for a back-rub or as significant as seeking help in carrying the burden when an aging parent is ill. The spouse responds to each bid either by turning toward the spouse or turning away. A tendency to turn toward your partner is the basis of trust, emotional connection, passion, and a satisfying sex life. Comical as it may sound, romance is strengthened in the supermarket aisle when your partner asks, “Are we out of butter?” and you answer, “I don’t know. Let me go get some just in case” instead of shrugging apathetically.
In our six-year follow-up of newlyweds, we found that couples who remained married had turned toward their partner’s bids an average of 86 percent of the time in the Love Lab, while those who ended up divorced had averaged only 33 percent…..There’s a reason that seemingly small events are fundamental to a relationship’s future: Each time partners turn toward each other, they are funding what I’ve come to call their emotional bank account. They are building up savings that, like money in the bank, can serve as a cushion when times get rough, when they’re faced with a major life stress or conflict. Because they have stored up an abundance of goodwill, such couples are less likely to teeter over into distrust and chronic negativity during hard times. (88-89).

Gottman and The Gospel

It seems that we have found some very helpful, empirically proven and simple skills to see our marriages flourish and grow. As I read Gottman, I am so thankful for his observations and practical guidance that has proven helpful for countless couples. I am also always listening to the pages of Scripture which are replete with this same sage counsel. This is where we turn in a new a profound direction. Scripture confirms what Gottman is seeing and describing. The Apostle Paul puts it this way in just one of many places. In Ephesians 4:1-3, he says,

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit----just as you were called to one hope when you were called---one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

It seems that what Gottman does is help us understand what it looks like in the very mundane places of life to be humble, gentle, patient and forbearing in love. For that, we can say thank you, Dr. Gottman. What Scripture does is connect us to the One who has been humble, gentle, patient and forbearing in love towards us! Father, Son and Spirit have reconciled us to God through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Now we are new creatures in Christ who have a new power by the Spirit to love our spouses. In light of all we have been given, this should be our daily prayer: Lord, have mercy on us that we would not squander your grace and miss opportunities in the drudgery of daily life to build Positive Sentiment Override with our spouses.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane

Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.

Four Things That Could Be Hurting Your Marriage This Year

We all know what makes for a good marriage; a climate of grace, good communication, healthy disagreements resolved in ways that honor the other, forgiveness, empathy, good companionship and intimate sex. But are you as keen to spot the things that could be slowly destroying your marriage?

Most couples can usually intuitively tell that things aren’t right but often can’t name with specificity what is hurting their relationship. For more than four decades, John Gottman has done some significant research on what makes relationships work and what destroys those same relationships in his “Love Lab” located in Seattle, Washington. Through interviews, monitoring blood pressure, heart rates, amount of sweat and video-taped interactions between couples, Gottman and his associates have uncovered some obvious but illusive conclusions. Here is one:

The determining factor in whether wives feel satisfied with the sex, romance and passion in their marriages is, by 70%, the quality of the couple’s friendship. For men, the determining factor is, by 70%, the quality of the couple’s friendship. So men and women come from the same planet after all (p. 19)

Four Marriage Defeaters

Since friendship is so important, Gottman has sought to find out what hinders and helps couples develop that friendship or what he calls “attunement.” In one section, he specifies four things that negatively impact the friendship. He calls them “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.” They are:

  1. Criticism: Gottman says that there is a difference between a complaint and a criticism. All marriages have complaints. It’s when a complaint turns into a criticism that indicates something serious is going wrong. A complaint focuses on a specific behavior. “I’m really upset that you didn’t call to let me know you were going to be late. Going forward, can you please let me know?” That is a complaint. It has 3 parts: 1. How you feel (I’m really upset); 2. About a specific behavior (You did not call to let me know you were going to be late) 3. And here is what I need/want/prefer (Could you please call going forward?).  Gottman defines the difference between a complaint and criticism: In contrast, a criticism is global and expresses negative feelings or opinions about the other’s character or personality (p.33). Criticism is an attack on one’s character. It is much more severe in its conclusions. It sounds like this, “You are always late. You never give me a heads up. You are always just thinking about your schedule and your needs!” Can you see how criticism can destroy your marriage?
     
  2. Contempt: Gottman says that “the second horseman arises from a sense of superiority over one’s partner. It is a form of disrespect.” He goes on to say that “sarcasm, cynicism...name-calling, eye-rolling, mockery and hostile humor are all forms of contempt. In whatever form, contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict rather than reconciliation (p.34).”
     
  3. Defensiveness: While it may make sense that you would want to defend yourself in the face of criticism and contempt, Gottman says that “research shows that this approach rarely has the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, ‘The problem isn’t me, it’s you.’” There is a difference between healthy disagreement which leads to helpful resolution and Gottman’s definition of defensiveness. He spends most of his time helping couples engage with one another.
     
  4. Stonewalling: the fourth horseman, stonewalling. is when one or both give up and just walk away and go silent. Gottman says, “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 if the couple can't put a stop to it (p.37). The final horseman indicates that the couple has stopped trying and is moving away from one another. Stonewalling usually arrives later in a marriage. That’s why you may not see it in a newly married couple but you can spot it in a couple who has been married for a longer period of time.”

The Four Horsemen and James 4

John Gottman has done countless marriages a big favor through his research and writings. I have seen this in my own marriage as well as others I have counseled and taught. His observations bring specificity and concreteness to what thoughts and behaviors are at work in a marriage that is not growing. These observations alone can help a couple move away from letting the four horseman into their relationship. And yet, Scripture gives us an even deeper diagnosis. In James 4:1-3, it says that we fight and quarrel because of “desires that battle within us.” Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling are tied to deeper motives that are driven by a heart that has strayed from God. What needs to be addressed includes thinking and behavior but also matters of core commitments. This is where the grace of God breaks in and rescues us from ourselves and others from us!

Gottman and the Gospel

What are we to make of this? Gottman helps us discern what specific thoughts and behaviors look like when a marriage is either growing or dying. These insights can be wonderfully freeing for the more relationally obtuse! And yet, the Scriptures gives us more. In the Bible, we meet a God of grace who treats us in the exact opposite ways from the four horsemen. Jesus comes to seek and save. Romans 5:8 says that, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He comes to redeem what is most broken in us; hearts that have strayed from God. When that takes place, there is a whole new dimension to life and change that enables us to follow Jesus’ example and to say no to criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Instead, we can move towards one another with gentleness, encouragement and grace because this is how Jesus, our Bridegroom, has moved towards you and me.

For further reading about John Gottman and his work, the following book will serve as a helpful introduction.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane

Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.