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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Four Keys to Getting Past Communication Road Blocks

By Linda Mintle
Feb. 14, 2010

The married stars of a hit reality television series showed signs of discontent long before their public announcement that divorce was impending. The husband told the media that he was unsure why his wife wanted to end their marriage and that her request came “just out of the blue.” But effective couples therapy was never an option on the table. It should have been, because the roadblocks to even this high-profile couple’s communication were not beyond repair.

Marital researcher John Gottman and his research team have documented the patterns that lead to divorce.

The “five to one rule” is a result, not a cause.
A decade ago, Gottman observed something he called the “five to one rule.” The rule states that for every negative communication, couples need five positive ones to feel good about their marriage.

Today, we understand that the rule is really a result (not the cause) of a solid relationship, and it involves more than simply saying nice things to each other. Couples who have five positive exchanges for every negative one reflect something deeper than pleasant talk.

Luke 6:45 explains that the heart is reflected in our words: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (NIV).

Positive words reflect a heart of love and a strong emotional bond essential to good couple communication. When the emotional bond isn’t strong, negative communication creeps in and damages the relationship.

It works like this.

Conflict is normal, but one’s reaction makes the difference.
Every couple experiences conflict. But when one spouse responds to a negative statement with an immediate negative, the conflict quickly escalates. If the emotional bond between the couple is weak, negative feelings result and the ratio of positives to negatives goes down. When the emotional bond is strong, couples can stay positive even when problems arise.

Marital therapists used to think that forcing couples to say positive things to each other could fix problems. It isn’t that easy. When couples’ relationships become predominantly negative in terms of their communication, help has to be aimed at strengthening the emotional bond. And that process requires looking at hurts, wounds, disrespect, lack of support and more.

Jesus was so concerned about our propensity to be negative and hold on to wrong thoughts and attitudes in our relationships that He commands us to be reconciled one to another (Matthew 5:24). Reconciliation requires willingness on the part of each spouse to forgive the other and to operate in grace. When this doesn’t happen and negative cycles are not interrupted and become the predominant pattern, the couple is heading down the road to divorce. This growing apart is a well-traveled road in today’s culture.

Negativity leads to negative feelings.
Again, Gottman’s research is helpful in understanding the role that negativity plays in a relationship. Relationship deterioration is progressive. It begins with minor discontent — a little criticism here and there. Then criticism becomes more frequent. Confrontation moves from challenging a spouse’s behavior to assassinating his or her character. Each partner searches for negative attributes in the other and expects to find them.

After months of criticism, a husband and wife begin to feel contempt for each other. They have progressed from disapproval and unhappiness to an all-out feeling of disgust. Each sees the other as the reservoir for all bad things. Eventually, contempt kills love.

Betraying thoughts creep in: I don’t love this person anymore. I don’t deserve this. I’m unhappy. I want out.

The Pharisees allowed criticism to turn to contempt. They were continually angry and critical of Jesus. How dare He heal on the Sabbath, talk to women and touch dead people! Criticism eventually gave way to feelings of contempt — contempt so deep that they plotted to kill Jesus.

Perhaps you don’t feel contempt for your partner but are highly defensive because you’ve been criticized. When attacked, you put up a wall. If you stay defensive, your relationship will suffer. Defensiveness creates a block to intimacy. Eventually you will grow emotionally apart from your spouse. And emotional distance is a significant predictor of divorce.

Finally, a partner can respond to criticism by stonewalling (shutting down emotionally and refusing to respond). Usually stonewalling comes after criticism and defensiveness have been present awhile.

None of these attitudes has a place in a Christian’s heart. The greatest commandments are to love God and one another (Mark 12:29-31). If you find yourself feeling contempt, being defensive or shutting down, first deal with it spiritually. Repent. Whatever led you down this path must be handled swiftly, in love, and with forgiveness, release of judgment and grace. This is God’s way. It is also critical to marital repair.

Strengthen the emotional bond and repair damage quickly.
Couples who value and respect each other are able to shift back to positive feelings when something negative happens. They don’t stay in a state of negativity. This is important, because a constant state of negative arousal is a major predictor of divorce.

But remember, conflict isn’t the culprit. It is a couple’s inability to repair the conflict that leads to ongoing bad feelings. Thus, ongoing reconciliation is key to the health of any marriage.

Scripture admonishes, “Each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:33). When a positive emotional bond is built on love and respect, it prevents negativity from developing or lingering. And when a couple can repair damage quickly, the bond remains strong.

 When couples are generally happy with each other, they don’t stay negative during conflict. This is because their strong emotional bond short-circuits negative emotions. Feelings of being valued and loved buffer the stress. Unless a couple builds an emotional bond based on love, respect and feeling valued, no amount of positive communication skills and conflict resolution training will help the marriage.

Scripture exhorts us to build each other up, not tear each other down (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Grace and forgiveness must be part of daily living. Then, when problems arise, the damage is repaired quickly and the couple return to their positive goals for marriage.

Dr. LINDA MINTLE is a licensed marriage and family therapist, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School and author of the book, I Married You, Not Your Family.

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