Marriage Busters:
Four Patterns that can Kill Love
©1997 by Lynn Johnson, Ph.D. For duplication, see below.

Dr. John Gottman (Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Simon & Schuster) is a psychologist who has studied marriage scientifically for many years. He discovered four patterns that are love killers. This handout reviews those four patterns.

Criticism: Attacking or criticizing one's partner. People who fall for this temptation do not seem to understand the difference between a complaint (a statement about wanting something to change) and a criticism (a statement about wanting someone to change).
Defensiveness: Doggedly battling every complaint from the partner. People who fall into this temptation seem to believe that to agree when someone criticizes them or complains about their behavior would be to lose something irreplaceable. They don't seem to be able to see or admit to any imperfection in themselves.
Contempt: Global criticism of the partner, showing disrespect, sarcasm. People who fall into this temptation seem to be carried away by their anger at the partner. When they show contempt, they are saying the partner has no value as a person. They don't seem to be able to talk about their own anger without attacking and demeaning the partner.
Stonewalling: Ignoring, withdrawing, and refusing to talk to the partner or try to negotiate. Stonewalling is "giving the silent treatment" or in other words, silent contempt. Distinguish this from healthy time out or breaks which help both partners get some perspective. The stonewaller implies the partner is unworthy of discussion; the time-out procedure suggests the listener needs a break.
These love killers can be defeated with patience, compassion, and determination. Sometimes a small change in one partner can derail the negative pattern and eventually bring about a positive solution. Listen with respect whether the partner "deserves" respect or not; forgive and start again even if the partner doesn't "deserve" forgiveness; try to have more good times than bad, even if the partner doesn't "deserve" good treatment. Make up your mind that your marriage will not fail!

Personal Resiliency:
Your Key to a Successful Marriage

Research into successful marriages found that people with the happiest marriages did not (to the surprise of the researchers) necessarily fight less. In the successful marriage was at least one partner who knew how to self sooth when discussions got too intense.

The self-soothing person has a habit of talking optimistically and compassionately to herself or himself. Where a person might say, "What's wrong with him? He's just being a selfish jerk!" in response to someone being rude, the resilient person would say, "The poor guy must be having a bad day. I wonder what has gone wrong for him?"

Psychologists now call this an optimistic approach to life, one that always sees the good in oneself and in others. Optimistic people are resilient, they bounce back from defeats quicker and keep going longer than others. Their self-talk, the conversations they have with themselves in their heads, focuses on positive ways of interpreting situations.

Why Must I Self-Sooth?

When you are discussing the most important relationship in your life, it is easy to get frightened and threatened. When you are under stress, your mind is running scared or is in an attack or flee mode. The highest centers of your brain are sidelined and your instincts and habits take over. Your thinking is not creative and reflecting at just the time you need it to be! A threatened mood does not help you! Anger and fear are not your friends!

Good News/Bad News The bad news is that moods are the result of extremely automatic habits that happen so fast that we usually believe that our moods are caused by events, not by our own self-talk.

The good news is that even though the habits are very quick and automatic, they can be changed. While it takes a good deal of work, you can train yourself to have resilient thinking habits.

And the even better news is that once you are in a habit of thinking resiliently, your life and relationships are much more stress free than you would have imagined possible. You see answers where there were just questions, and solutions where there were problems.

Skill Building: Resilient Self-Talk

  1. Think of a situation that recurs and causes you some grief. You might feel angry, hurt, sad . . . it doesn't really matter.
  2. Describe the situation. Leave out what you think, just describe what happens. Use video description, or in other words, what I would see and hear if I watched the scene on a video.
  3. Now write down what you say to yourself during and after the situation. Write down those thoughts. Notice how those statements would logically cause the feelings you are having.
  4. Look at the situation again. Practice compassion and understanding. Can you see a more soothing way to look at it? Practice this more compassionate way of thinking, reviewing troublesome situations in your mind and finding a more peaceful way to look at them. Bear in mind that you solve problems better when you are calm, so calm and peaceful is your goal. Anger and fear are your enemies.

This document may be freely copied and distributed provided that the copyright notice and author contact information are included, and as provided that no charge is made for copying or distribution.
Lynn D. Johnson, Ph.D., 166 East 5900 South, #B-108, Murray, UT 84107 Phone: (801) 261-1412 email: