Address Your Irritations Gently:

During this time when you are living is such close quarters with your spouse, many mild irritations will seem larger than they really are.  The key is to resolve the small hurts before they turn into big ones.  But you probably don’t do that because you are afraid it will lead to a big fight and you want to avoid that.  But there is a very simply way to address these hurts without getting into a bigger argument.  It’s called “Gentle Start Up”. There are three steps to it, and you must follow it in the right order. 

Here’s what you say:

  1. I feel…  In this step you label the emotion you are feeling.  It could be scared, unloved, unimportant, lonely,  etc. etc. etc
  2. When you…  In this step you describe what your spouse did that made you feel that way.
  3. And I’d like to ask you to please…  In this step you describe what you would like your spouse to do differently.

Let’s see how this would work in real life. 

              Honey, I feel overwhelmed and scared.

              When you talk about the coronavirus all day long.

              And I’d like to ask you to talk to me about it only twice a day.

It is important that you have this conversation in that exact order.

I feel…

When you…

And I’d like to ask you to…

This works because you both love each other and neither of you want to hurt the other.  By starting with your feelings, your spouse is less likely to feel criticized and more likely to be motivated to make the change you are asking for.  This is especially true since the majority of the times you hurt each other; it is unintentional.  Certainly, you want to know if you are doing something that is hurting your spouse so you can stop doing it.  And your spouse feels the same way (hopefully).

In the last blog I talked about the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  This gentle approach to addressing your hurts, keeps you from climbing on any of those horses.  But if you started off talking about your spouse’s behavior, that could come off as criticism or contempt and that could trigger your spouse to get defensive or stonewall (shut down).  All of which makes the situation worse not better.

A personal example:

A couple of months ago I was working in my office and mid-morning my wife brought me a cup of hot tea (I love hot tea). Nice guy that I am, I said, “thank you”.  She replied, “you are welcome” and left the room.  About 10 minutes later she came back in and said “I’d like to have a gentle conversation with you.  Now, whenever my wife starts a conversation like that, I know I’ve done something wrong.  I cannot share with you exactly what my inner voice said, but it was something like “oh, darn, what could I possibly have done wrong, I’ve been in my office all morning”.

She then said:    I felt unappreciated

                             When you did not look at me when you thanked me for the cup of tea.

                             And I like to ask you to please look up from your computer screen when we are talking.

Wow.  She was absolutely right.  I had not looked at her when I thanked her for the cup of tea.  And I know better.  John Gottman has discovered that the amount of time couples spend looking at each other when they interact is a powerful indicator of the health of the marriage.  So, I stood up, looked at her, hugged her, and thanked her for the tea.  She smiled.  And… we both felt better.

I often suggest that couples write down these three steps and tape it to the refrigerator.  Successful, happy couples make these words part of their normal marriage vocabulary.  If you do the same, 90% of your conflicts will be solved in under 30 seconds and will not lead to anger or hurt feelings.

On Wednesday I will talk about the connections between behaviors and emotions.

RememberYou are perfected by your spouse’s imperfections.

Do Not Ride Those Horses

In a past blog post, I talked about how patience is such an important virtue to master at times like these and when it fails, how important it is to be able to forgive one another. These days, when we are living in such close proximity with our spouses, normal irritations can seem to multiple in number and magnitude. John Gottman, our countries leading researcher into marital happiness, has discovered there are four things that are highly predictive of marital disharmony and if they are present at a significant level, they are predictive of divorce.

He labeled them the four Horsemen of The Apocalypse, because when they show up, they bring death and destruction.

The 4 Horsemen are…

criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. When they are present in a marriage, serious negative consequences follow. Now that you and your spouse are together 24/7, it’s easy to fall prey to one or more of these bad boys.

Criticism – is pointing out your partners flaws because, obviously, he/she doesn’t see them. The idea is – if I point out what is wrong with you, you will change. And I will be happy.

Contempt – is mean-spirited criticism. It is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust, anger and hostility.  It shows up as name calling, sarcasm and belittling. Contempt is the deadliest of the horsemen because the hurt is intentional.

Defensiveness – is denying responsibility.  “It’s not my fault, it’s your fault.  I’m not to blame, you are.” Defensiveness is harmful to marriage because you fail to take ownership for your part of the conflict. And obviously the problem can’t be solved if you don’t own your share of the responsibility.

Stonewalling – is shutting down and refusing to participate any further in the conversation.  This is harmful because conflicts can’t be solved if they are not discussed. However, shutting down is often a protective measure because it prevents the fight from escalating.  But obviously this doesn’t resolve the issue and often leaves your spouse feeling unimportant or disrespected.

John Gottman has identified specific behaviors that are antidotes for the Four Horsemen, but I will focus on the Christian virtues that can help you avoid riding these bad boys. His antidotes and the corresponding virtues are detailed in the chart below.

HorsemanBehaviorVirtue
CriticismGentle start up (more on this in the next blog)Silence – the virtue by which one does not speak unless necessary
ContemptDescribe your feelings and needs, not your spouseMeekness – patience combined with kindness
DefensivenessTake responsibilityHumility – willingness to live according to the truth
StonewallingTake a time out, let your spouse know when you will returnDocility – the ability to be led and take counsel from others

The virtue contrary to the horsemen of criticism is silence. Silence is the virtue by which one does not speak unless necessary. It is a guard against too much talking.  It enables you to hold your tongue and not say things that you may regret. Many a sin is committed through the words we use when we talk to our spouse.

The virtue that is the antidote for contempt is meekness.  Meekness is more than just patience.  It is mildness of heart paired with kindness and it was the favorite virtue of St. Francis DeSales.  It is a virtue that closely imitates our Lord.  Recall when he said, “learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Meekness allows you to be gentle when you correct your spouse.

The virtue that helps us overcome defensiveness his humility.  Humility is a willingness to live according to the truth and it is called the mother of all virtues because truth is acknowledging the essence of God. St Thomas Aquinas said “humility allows us to see ourselves as God sees us” with our infinite dignity but also with our human defects. Humility allows you to admit your contribution to the flight that you and your spouse just had.

Docility is the virtue that helps you overcome stonewalling.  It is the ability to lead and to take counsel from others.  It allows you to stop the fight when your spouse calls a timeout and it allows you to seek to understand your spouse’s reality.

This time of forced confinement with your spouse is a golden opportunity to grow in some wonderfully important virtues, especially silence, meekness, humility, and docility.  

A Final Word:  Virtues are acquired in two ways.

The first way is through prayer. Ask and you shall receive.  Asking your Lord to help you grow in the specific virtues you most need in order to live peacefully with your spouse is the first step to acquiring that good habit.

The second way grow in virtue is practice.  Repetition strengthens your good habits.   Here’s the good news – being around your spouse all day will give you many many opportunities to grow in virtue.

Rememberwe are perfected through our spouse’s imperfections.

FRUSTRATION

In my last blog post I said I would spend time talking about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling in this post.  Each of these contribute significantly to disharmony in marriage and so they need to be understood and controlled. But, I’ve decided to call an audible.  I’ve heard from a lot of couples recently about the frustration they are experiencing living in such close proximity with each other and their children, so I thought I would address frustration, where comes from and some ideas on how to eliminate it or at least reduce its influence in your life.

The first thing to know is that two things that are needed for frustration to show up.  First, you need to have a goal and second you need to be blocked from attaining that goal. By way of example: Let’s say you have a goal to live peacefully and quietly in your own home.  But, now your spouse and children are around all day and they bring with them a lot of chaos and noise. Your goal of peace and quiet has been blocked.

Only Two Ways to Deal with Frustration

First, you can try to eliminate that thing that is blocking you from obtaining your goal of peace and quiet.  In this case, that would be eliminating your spouse and children from the home.  So… that’s not going to happen.  As an alternative, you could try to reduce the amount of time you are around your family.  You might have some success here.  Establishing a family routine that brings you all together at certain times and allows for time apart, is actually a pretty good idea.  But, you will still be together a lot more than usual and they will still get on your nerves from time to time.  Another alternative would be to talk to your spouse and family, explain your frustrations to them and ask them to change their behavior.  There is a very specific way to do this called “Gentle Start Up” and I will address that Monday.  Depending on the age of your children (or the emotional age of your spouse) this may or may not work, but it worth a try.

The second way to address this frustration is to change your goal.  If you shift your goal away from peace and quiet to a family full of life and energy, you will get your wish.  This goal of peace and quiet in the home may have made a lot of sense two weeks ago but may not make much sense with the “stay at home” order with which we are forced to comply.  Plus we have no control over the real source of our frustration – coronavirus or the government’s “stay at home” order.

How important is it really.

 It is just possible that many of the things that seemed so very important to you two weeks aren’t so important today. As your life situation has changed, so to must you change some of your priorities and goals, at least temporary. By way of example, I was talking to one couple the other day and one of the things that was very important to them was to have handsomely decorated living room in which they could entertain guests and be comfortable.  But now with both parents working from home and with children at home attempting to master e-learning, the frustration level was rising in the home. So they decided to re-purposed the living room.  The goal of having a well furnished and attractive living room no longer seemed important. They embraced a new goal – to have a room that would facilitate e-learning and provide a reasonably structured learning environment for the children. So the living room furniture moved to the garage. Tables, chairs, desk lamps and a chalkboard got moved into the living room. The new arrangement is working out very well for the entire family. 

So this is a good time to examine those things that seem so important to you two weeks ago. Perhaps  they aren’t quite as important now. Changing your goals by shifting where you place the importance in your life, can reduce a lot of the frustration with which you are dealing.

One final word on how you can eliminate frustration and anxiety from your life. There is one Christian virtue that the Saints have strived to acquire for 2000 years now – abandonment to Divine Providence. Learning to place our trust in God, especially when it goes against our selfish human nature can eliminate frustration and bring us real peace.  Easier said than done to be sure and it requires a commitment to building daily prayer into your schedule.  There’s no harm in asking God to grant you peace and serenity during a pandemic.  Who knows, He just might answer your prayer.

Conclusion: 

  1. Eliminate those things that are blocking you from attaining your goals (to the degree possible).
  2. Change your goals to ones that make better sense in our new world order.
  3. Leave the rest up to God and accept our situation as coming from a loving God who always works for our benefit.

Greater peace awaits you.

Friday – The Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse

When patience fails, forgiveness is a very good thing.

Just to be clear, both you and your spouse married someone with defects.  You both came into this world with original sin and along the way you both picked up a few bad habits of your own, (anger, impatience and selfishness, just to name a few).   So now you are with each other 24/7 and those defects are starting to look bigger and show up more frequently.  Most likely, your partners defects make you angry.  And anger always likes to express itself, usually through criticism or contempt, but sometimes through stonewalling or defensiveness.  John Gottman calls these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and they are very predictive of marital disharmony and do great harm in a marriage.  I will address these bad boys in my next blog post Wednesday.

Because of your fallen human nature, conflict is part of your daily life, and really can’t be avoided.  Your spouse probably never wakes up in the morning and thinks, “how can I irritate my wife/husband today.  Oh, I know, I’ll do that first.”  And yet, he/she does irritate you at times throughout the day.  So, this is where forgiveness comes in.  It is probably the single most important virtue you need to have a happy marriage.

First, a word about what forgiveness is not:

person holding Forgiveness poster
  • It is not reconciliation.  Reconciliation is very important but can only happen after forgiveness.
  • It is not forgetting the injustice.  You will rarely forget the hurts you suffer.
  • It is not condoning or excusing the bad behavior.  Bad behavior is just that – bad.  And there is no excuse for it.
  • It is not giving your spouse permission to keep on hurting you.  No one has the right to hurt you.

And now… a word about what forgiveness is:

  • It is a decision.  It is a choice you make to overcome the pain you are feeling.
  • It is letting go of your negative emotions – anger, resentment, guilt etc.
  • It is treating you spouse with compassion, even if you do not feel like it.

Realize further, our faith requires us to forgive.  It really isn’t an option.  Our Lord will only forgive us to the degree we forgive others including our spouse.  He made it very clear in the “Our Father” that we need to give forgiveness as much as we need to receive forgiveness.  Looks like Our Lord knew what he was talking about.  Modern science has discovered that people who are good at forgiveness have healthier relationships, better mental health, lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, less anxiety and improved self-esteem.

The sad truth is that no one in this world can hurt you more than your spouse.  That’s because there is no one to whom you have given yourself to as totally and as completely as to your spouse.  And that makes you vulnerable to being hurt by his/her imperfections. 

John Gottman discovered that happy couples are good at viewing their spouse through a positive lens.  Nowhere is this more important than in cultivating a spirit of forgiveness.  If you can see it through your spouse’s eyes and feel it through your spouses’ heart, you will most likely see the hurt as being unintentional and due to his/her flawed human nature. 

By way of example.  Let’s say your spouse checks in with you every 15 minutes to see how you are doing and that is driving you crazy because you can’t get any work done.  You could conclude he/she is thoughtless and overly emotionally needy.  Or, you could conclude that he/she is anxious and scared about these uncertain times and is turning to you as the one safe place in his or her world right now.  Happy couples choose to see their spouses through a positive lens even when they are an irritation.

Conclusion:

Since you are perfected by your spouse’s imperfections, every time your spouse gives you something to forgive, he/she is helping you grow in virtue.  Ultimately, this gets you a higher place in heaven.  Sounds like forgiving your spouse is a pretty good idea no matter how you look at it. 

Wednesday I will talk about how to help your spouse make a few changes, so you won’t have quite as much to forgive. 

You Are Perfected by Your Spouse’s Imperfections

This is the second post in my “Can My Marriage Survive Covid-19” series. There will be a new post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in this series.

The plain truth is that you married an imperfect individual – a fact that you, more or less, overlooked prior to your wedding. (We all married imperfect individuals.) The important point to keep in mind is that you have a choice. These imperfections can be a source of irritation or a source of virtue.  Top on the list of the virtues your spouse can help you attain is patience.  And if there was ever a time you need patience it is when you are spending all day, every day together.

Patience is the virtue that helps you calmly bear your tribulations and preserve serenity amid the sufferings of life.  Marriage certainly brings with it, it’s share of tribulations and sufferings.  For most of us, marriage is the forge in which virtues are formed.  It is important to keep in mind that God gave you the spouse you most need in order to grow in the virtues you most need.  If you are like most of us, you could use a little more patience.

How to grow in Patience:

woman holding arms of man

1.  You must really want it.  You have to see it as a good thing.

2.  Understand that your spouse is not intentionally trying to irritate you.  Try to see through his or her eyes.  Ask, what emotion is driving his or her behavior?  Generally, it will be a fear or an unmet need.

3.  Pray for it.  Ask and you shall receive.  St Bonaventure said, “If you would suffer patiently the adversities and miseries of the world (let’s insert the word marriage here), be a person of prayer.”

4.  Think about Our Lord’s suffering.  He endured far greater than you are asked to endure.

5.  Come to see the irritation as a gift from God.  Jesus himself said “It is by patience you will save your souls”.  And… saving your soul is a good thing.

6.  If all else fails, go for a walk. 

St Therese, The Little Flower, told the story of a nun who used to splash dirty water on her as they did their laundry.  Although initially irritated, she came to see this as a treasure that enabled her to grow in virtue.  She actually looked forward to this “irritation”. 

Realize, you can only grow in patience when you run into trials.  If your spouse is constantly listening to the latest coronavirus update on the news, reading everything on the internet and wants to talk about it at every meal, there is a real opportunity to grow in patience.  Don’t think, “He/she is really irritating me.”  Think, “He/she is sanctifying me.” 

You will know you have arrived when you come to view your spouses imperfections as gifts. 

Action step:

Spend a few minutes in the morning thinking of how your spouse may irritate you this day and prepare yourself for the opportunity to grow in patience.

Monday’s thought:  When patience fails, forgiveness is a very good thing.

Can My Marriage Survive Covid-19?

These are unprecedented times.  With the government asking all of us to shelter in place, we will be in close contact with our spouses 24/7.  While this may have seemed like a great idea on our honeymoon, we may have a different thought about it now.

The fact is, we all married a person with defects.  Spending so much time together can cause us to magnify our spouses defects or overlook his or her qualities.

becca-tapert-O7sK3d3TPWQ-unsplash

My intent is to post, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, a thought for your consideration and reflection to help you navigate all the hours you will spend together.  The goal is to have you exit this period of confinement with a stronger, healthier and happier marriage than you had going in to it.  This is your chance to grow in the habits that make for a good marriage.

Today’s thought:  Everything is neutral until you place a label on it.

While this may not be entirely theologically correct, it does demonstrate the power our thoughts have over how we judge a situation.  If we look with dread at this period of confinement, we will find frustration, impatience and anger.  If, however, we look at it as an opportunity to live life at a slower pace and reconnect with our spouse, we will find happiness and peace.

Successful partners are able to see the good in the other and dwell more on that than the defects.  John Gottman, the country’s leading marriage expert, calls that a “Positive Sentiment Override”.  It’s a perspective we can all develop.

Action step:

Take out a sheet of paper and write down everything you like, admire and respect about your spouse.  Without much effort you should be able to come up with 20 items.  I’ve had some clients who have come up with over 40.

Now… tell your spouse one item each day.  There are two ways to do this and I recommend you use both methods.  The first is to actually look your spouse in the eye and tell him or her what you really like.  The second is to write it down and leave your note where your spouse will find it – in front of the coffee pot or on the bathroom mirror.

Seeing the good in your spouse, will enable you to grow in your love for each other each and every day.

Friday’s thought:  We are perfected by our spouse’s imperfections.