Emotional Health

Dr. Ford on Emotional Health: The Art of War in Marriage

Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. This week, she continues her focus on the everyday interactions that can make a marriage succeed—or fail.

In a recent post I discussed the idea that some people are “masters” when it comes to marriage. This concept, developed by renowned marriage therapist John Gottman, emphasizes the idea that positive interactions are essential to a good relationship. Negative interactions are present in all marriages, of course; for a successful marriage, the ratio of positive to negative interactions must be high—the higher the better. These “masters” of emotional intimacy, in contrast to the other group, whom Gottman calls “disasters,” understand that kindness is an essential ingredient to marital satisfaction and that it is a muscle that must be consciously utilized and kept in shape.

9781452601519Many of Gottman’s insights came from careful observations of the way couples interact. When he first gained prominence with his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,  his self-presentation as a “pop psychologist” earned him the scorn of some of the field’s most serious researchers and theoreticians. He made grandiose claims: after watching a pair in his “Love Lab” (his catchy name for the research facility) for just five minutes, he said, he could predict with 91 percent accuracy whether or not the couple will split. Nevertheless, much subsequent research has supported his ideas, and many clinicians have adopted them into their marriage therapy repertoire.

One of the things that stood out about Gottman’s approach is that he focuses not on the issues that cause conflicts between partners but the way they interact when they are together. Many experts predict that fighting about money or sex or the children is deadly to relationships. Partners must be on the same page about these things, they assert, and yet most couples have conflicts in all these areas—and most marriages do indeed fail. “The chance of ending a first marriage over a 40-year period is 67 percent,” he says. Yet what Gottman discovered is that while some people can fight endlessly about these earth-shattering issues and stay together, other couples can break up over who is going to walk the dog.

Many of his insights came from watching couples fight. He realized that fighting is not only universal, but that it is necessary to marital satisfaction. The trick that “emotionally intelligent” couples know is that tone often is more important than content. Gottman observed that couples who treated each other with respect fared much better. They could be blisteringly angry but still come out of an argument unscathed if they did not demean their partners.

However, those couples who did not understand this and whose fighting style revealed feelings of contempt for their spouses were later found to divorce in high numbers.

In marital conflicts, Gottman came up with a list of characteristics that are particularly negative, which he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” since they signal impending doom if left unchecked.


John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

1. Criticism

Attacking your partner’s personality or character, usually with the intent of making someone right and someone wrong.

• Generalizations: “You always . . .” “You never. . .” “You’re the type of person who . . .” “Why are you so . . .”

2. Contempt

Attacking your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse him/her.

Insults and name-calling: “bitch, bastard, wimp, fat, stupid, ugly, slob, lazy . . .”

• Hostile humor, sarcasm, or mockery

• Body language and tone of voice: sneering, rolling your eyes, curling your upper lip . . .


3. Defensiveness

• Seeing self as the victim, warding off a perceived attack:

• Making excuses (e.g., external circumstances beyond your control forced you to act in a certain way), “It’s not my fault . . . ”, “I didn’t . . .”

• Cross-complaining: meeting your partner’s complaint or criticism with a complaint of your own, ignoring what your partner said

• Disagreeing and then cross-complaining: “That’s not true, you’re the one who . . .” “I did this because you did that. . .”

• Yes-butting: start off agreeing but end up disagreeing

• Repeating yourself without paying attention to what the other person is saying

•Whining “It’s not fair.”


4. Stonewalling

Withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. Partners may think they are trying to be “neutral,” but stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation, disconnection, and/or smugness:

• Stony silence

• Monosyllabic mutterings

• Changing the subject

• Removing yourself physically

• Silent Treatment


If any of these behaviors sound familiar, it’s because they are universally employed strategies in conflict situations. The legal system has ritualized the defense/prosecution positions, and many couples do in fact fight as if they are in court and there is some objective “truth” that can be sorted out by using these techniques. What emotionally intelligent couples know is that the truth between two people is often less important than how we chose to perceive our partner’s actions.

41Y7wafDUCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_An example might be when your partner is late meeting you for dinner. Gottman cites a case in which the husband was furious that his wife came late to a nice evening he had planned. She, unknown to him, had stopped to pick up a gift, but by the time she arrived he was so resentful and angry that the dinner was ruined. He focused on her negative behavior—strictly speaking, she was “guilty” of being late—rather than her positive behavior. As Gottman puts it, emotionally intelligent partners avoid this kind of debacle because “in their day-to-day lives they have hit upon a dynamic which keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones.”

This is not to say that all negative behavior should be forgiven. Some issues, such as betrayal, substance abuse, or physical abuse should not be glossed over but must be met head on. And many people suffer from a lack of insight into the ways in which “transference” of feelings from figures in their past are interfering with seeing the partner as he/she really is—(“You’re just like my father—only interested in yourself and your career!” etc.) However, even when discussing or working through the most serious of conflicts, Gottman’s suggestions for constructive interaction are important pointers. In his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail,  his suggestions for remedies are:

• Learn to make specific complaints and requests (when X happened, I felt Y, I want Z)

• Conscious communication: Speaking the unarguable truth & listening generously

• Validate your partner (let your partner know what makes sense to you about what they are saying; let them know you understand what they are feeling, see through their eyes)

• Shift to appreciation (5 times as much positive feeling & interaction as negative)

• Claim responsibility: “What can I learn from this?” & “What can I do about it?”

• Rewrite your inner script (replace thoughts of righteous indignation or innocent victimization with thoughts of appreciation, responsibility that are soothing & validating)

• Practice getting undefended (allowing your partner’s utterances to be what they really are: just thoughts and puffs of air) and let go of the stories that you are making up

All of this is easier said than done, especially when the partners are in the heat of a marital argument. Nevertheless, Gottman claims that those partners who have “developed” the habit (or muscle, as he calls it) of kindness will be more apt to succeed if they have a lot of “positive” interactions (see last week’s column about “bids”) in their “marriage bank.” Most important is the idea that much of this is under your control: you can choose to be more thoughtful and conscious of your partner both during times of war and times of peace, and your marriage will be better for it.


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