Chapters 6 and 7 in part two of Safe Haven Marriage, explore emotional disconnection and marital emotions further. It is in fact the lack of emotional connection and how strong emotions are handled in a marriage that can be a threat to its ongoing safety.
John Gottman, humanist PhD psychologist, claims to be able to predict with 90% accuracy whether or not a couple will divorce in the following years within minutes of them arriving in his therapy rooms.
How does he do this? Well it’s all based on what he has termed “The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse”. Sound familiar? He probably thought he was being very natty when he coined that phrase, sorry John but we’ve kind of heard that term before. Anyway naturally these four horsemen of the apocalypse wreak havoc on a marriage, (just like the ones in the bible wreak havoc on the Earth) and when a marriage displays these behaviours consistently it’s time to find some professional help. They are:
Criticism -no marriage can withstand constant criticism. Criticism is different to making a complaint. A complaint may be something like; “Could you please not leave your wet towel on my side of the bed?” However a criticism will be loaded with shame and attack, something more like; “You always leave your wet towel on my side of the bed, your hopeless you’ll never change, you’re just like your father!” Sounds very different and has a very different impact on the receiver. In the case of the second response it’s highly likely that long term resentments have gathered and trust has been betrayed. These feelings will need to be dealt with constructively for trust and safety to be restored.
Contempt -like criticism takes it a step further and aims the arrow of attack right into the person’s sense of self-respect. Contempt usually builds up over time after many failed attempts to resolve an issue. Contempt usually takes one if not all of the following forms:
• Name calling and insults
• Hostile or sarcastic humour
• Negative body language such as eye rolling or sneering.
Defensiveness -it’s natural to put up protective barriers when one is being attacked however it drives a deeper wedge in the relationship as it discourages connection and draws couples further apart.
Stonewalling - happens when one spouse withdraws from the other and stops responding. They stop criticising or defending and withdraw behind an impenetrable wall. Unfortunately this tends to send the message to the other spouse that I no longer care and is very dangerous.
What most often follows these behaviours is a withdraw and pursue cycle; one spouse will withdraw to limit the pain and the other sensing a shut down in the connection will pursue to maintain the connection. The other sensing they are being chased will withdraw further and naturally panic will set in for the other partner and they chase harder. Hence a dance takes place where sadly no connection is achieved. Only as we come to understand the role of our emotions in this marital dance that we can begin to make the required changes.
Many confused sentiments have been vocalised by Christians over the decades as to the role of emotions, exposing a rather polarised view of them. Some favour jettisoning them altogether as unreliable while others idolise them. I personally am encouraged by the words of 1 Timothy 4:4 that tell us that everything that God has created is good and so presumably emotions do not fall outside of the scope of this statement. Just like sex is God’s good gift to married couples and money is a blessing from God, emotions too are good, it is in our fallen human brokenness that we mishandle them as we do sex and money. Does this mean that we should do away with sex and money? Not at all! Instead as Christians we need to honour our emotions and set the example to the world by responding healthily to them. We need to struggle to manage them in a constructive manner, neither avoiding them nor elevating them.
Emotions communicate five significant truths to us that we will do well to listen to:
1. They alert us to needs - when I feel sad it’s likely I have lost something of value.
2. They direct our thoughts -we may ponder our sadness and struggle to make sense of it bringing us to new understandings.
3. They give value to our thoughts -I fought with my closest friend and I now believe I am useless at making friends. This value may need to be challenged.
4. They prompt us to respond - to attempt to repair a broken relationship.
5. They prompt others to respond -as my spouse sees my downcast face they may respond by drawing near to me and asking if I am okay.
Emotions can either be primary or secondary. What does this mean?
A primary emotion is our real emotion in a situation and is most likely to be fear or sadness. However in the middle of an argument to protect ourself we are unlikely to express our primary emotions but instead express our secondary emotions which are really cover up or protective emotions to shield us from pain. To give you an example let’s say my spouse has agreed to join me at a particular function that has been in the diary for months. When the day arrives they communicate that they will be unable to attend as they have something else they need to do. I could respond from my secondary emotion; the place of anger and express myself using a number of the four horseman of the apocalypse; “You’re never there for me, you’re hopeless, you prefer to be there for others rather than me!” Naturally my spouse will respond defensively and an argument will follow. However I could have chosen to speak from the more vulnerable place of the primary emotion and say something like; “I feel scared that I don’t matter to you and that you don’t love me anymore. I feel sad that something has gone wrong with us.”
Expressing our primary emotions does not guarantee a good outcome but certainly increases the chances of our spouse being able to respond to us more positively. Since we are coming from a more vulnerable place, this invites our spouse to respond to our call for help in a more nurturing and protective manner. With practice we can be trained to do this more regularly rather than jumping into our secondary emotion of anger and defensiveness. As a result a better outcome is more likely as we draw our spouse to connect with us rather than push them away with our harshness.
We explored this concept in our Safe Haven Marriage group and encouraged each other to give it a go at home. With prayer and reading through the pertinent chapters in the book may I encourage you to speak from a place of openness and vulnerability next time you feel an argument coming on? Speak from your fear and sadness rather than your anger. You may just manage to avoid an argument and have a deep conversation that draws your hearts to each other and builds your emotional connection, something in the end that we all really want and is good for our marriages.