Category Archives: Marriage & Couples

Moving Past Gridlock – Part 3: Your Dreams and Their Dreams

Last week we discussed the essential skills couples need to manage conflict. This week we will explore the dreams each person has within conflict and how these influence the couple relationship. (This information was adapted from Dr. John M. Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman, (c) 2000-2011, Bridging the Couple Chasm).

A common frustration people in a relationship have is both feeling and not being able to understand their partner. “He just doesn’t understand,” “She’s missing the point,” “He’s not listening,” “I can’t talk to her.” Part of the desire for a relationship is a deep hope of being known, accepted, and understood in such a way that in this entire world there is at least one person who “gets you” and has your back. When you don’t feel this from your love – your partner – it is hurtful and makes you want to close up against them. Conflicts turn into fights and sensitive feelings or information gets used against one another. But that is where couples have the opportunity to turn toward one another instead of away or against each other in the effort to understand where the other person is coming from. Understanding your own dreams will help you understand how to communicate this to your significant other and put you in a better position to understand theirs as well.

Think about the last several conflicts you had with your spouse. Was there a time when you really wanted them to understand something but felt you just weren’t getting through? Notice how I asked this question – not – “what were you trying to convince them of/trying to win?” but rather “what did you want them to understand?” Marriage is not a competitive sport. A friend of mine once gave me the advice before I married that, “Remember, if you always have to win then you get to go to bed with a loser!” That’s not fun. In his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (2009), researcher Dr. John Gottman found that 69% of marital conflicts are never resolved. It appears that when you marry someone, you marry a particular set of problems that don’t go away. This is important to know because most of us are spending 100% of our energy in trying to resolve something with our partner that has only a 31% chance of working out.

So, it is important to first know is this a resolvable problem? My wife and I carry out dozens of these decisions each week – who picks up the kids, who’s doing homework tonight, how much do spend on a vacation, etc. Examples of unresolvable problems are different for everyone but might include situations like – feelings or loyalties to extended family members, custody matters and child discipline in blended families, and religious convictions. In those situations you may simply never agree together on an issue and this is where understanding one another’s dreams comes into play.

In the example of child discipline in blended families there can be strong feelings by both partners when it comes to boundaries and discipline in the home. The important factor is to listen to your partner and try and understand their position and why they feel a certain way. Avoid the pressure to make your partner take your position – what you want to focus on is understanding their point of view or helping your partner understand your point of view. Instead of gridlock on the issue of discipline try and move toward a dialogue where you both feel safe to express your feelings without the concern of being judged, criticized or pressured.

If you want your partner to understand you then you first need to understand yourself. Why do you feel so strongly? Some adults remember the feelings they had when their parents separated and divorced and this affects them now in raising their own children with a new partner. What dreams were lost? Has this created a determination to never let something happen in your current relationship? What new things do you want in your new family? What do you picture in your mind as a dream or hope that you wish your partner could understand?

On the other hand, your partner may have not experienced divorce and has long held convictions over how children are to be raised whether they are step-children or children born to you both. What were the dreams you had then and that you now want to fulfill in your current family? If your dream is fulfilled what is the payoff or end result you hope for? What do you picture in your mind that you want your partner to understand?

You will get farther in creating a calm and accepting atmosphere in your relationship if you can get closer to your partner’s dreams and hopes by understanding them. Withhold judgment. “That will never work!” and “That’s a pipedream!” won’t get you far. Honor each other’s dreams. Who else can? And when you are able to listen and validate each other’s feelings you will create a dialogue in the midst of issues and problems that don’t necessarily have an immediate answer but do need your combined attention and mutual understanding.

Next week, it’s handling the “after” of a hurtful conflict.

Please click here for more information about couples therapy.

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Moving Past Gridlock – Part 2: Essential Skills to Work Through Conflict

In this 4-part series we are looking at what couples can do to move through gridlock to form a healthy dialogue in conflicts.  Last week we discussed listening and validating one another.  This week we will explore 4 skills couples can use in managing conflict effectively.  (This information was adapted from Dr. John M. Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman, Bridging the Couple Chasm, 2000-2011).

First, SLOW DOWN before you start talking.  Fights often occur within the first minutes of an argument because one partner is escalated in their emotions, tone, or physical affect.  This causes the other person to either escalate or retreat.  Begin with the “I feel ___” statements instead of pointing out problems in your partner.  Starting a conversation about a problem by saying, “Ugh, why didn’t you do the laundry!  What were you doing when I was gone?!” will invite defensiveness from your partner.

Second, REPAIR ruptures in the relationship along the way.  Just as it is critical to not escalate early in a conflict so it is imperative to attempt to repair any hurts you may have caused early in the conflict.  The sooner the repair the stronger the rest of the conversation will be.  A repair might be simply, “I’m sorry, I know I’m pushing you on this topic, let me slow down,” or “Honey, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that about you.”  These are emotional repairs which are more effective than cognitive repairs.  Couples often get caught up in believing that a cognitive repair should do the trick, “Honey, you know that’s not true,” (when the other person is feeling strongly about something).

Third, ACCEPT INFLUENCE.  The only way you can expect or ask for or hope for someone else’s accountability is to first be accountable yourself.  Being accountable means you not only take responsibility for your own actions but that you take account of how those actions affect others around you.  With being accountable comes the credit of being influential.  You cannot be influential unless you are able to be influenced.  Accepting influence from your partner might look like saying, “You’re right, I didn’t think of that” or “that’s true,” but then it also means adding this influence into the equation of the conflict.  This is where you can begin to compromise on issues.

Lastly, CALM DOWN.  This goes for yourself and helping your partner.  When people argue and emotions become heightened there is a physiological reaction sometimes where adrenaline and cortisol get pushed into the body’s systems.  These are the “fight, flight, freeze” hormones and are put there to keep us from danger – either to engage, run away, or hide.  With this hormone rush comes escalated heart rate, clenched fists, reddened face, animated motions and gestures, sweating, tense muscles, and rapid speech.  When the body enters this state of alarm it is difficult to engage the executive functions of the brain like reasoning, insight, and empathy.  So, notice how you feel.  If you’re feeling flooded by the argument or the other person let them know you need to disengage for a while to calm yourself.  If your partner is escalated notice their signals and help them disengage, “I can see you’re upset, let’s take a break.”

Hopefully, by taking some of these steps you may improve your ability to work through conflict with your partner instead of allowing the conflict to control you or your relationship.  Next week, how your dreams and your partner’s dreams are often unnoticed but crucial elements in conflicts and key to their resolution.

Please click here for more information about couples therapy.

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Moving Past Gridlock – 4 Part Series

By Dean Wisdom

Over the next four weeks we will be looking at what couples can do to move past gridlock.  The series includes:

Part 1 Listening and Validating

Part 2 Essential Skills to Work Through Conflict

Part 3 Your Dreams and Their Dreams

Part 4 After a Hurtful Experience

(This information was adapted from Dr. John M. Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman, Bridging the Couple Chasm, 2000-2011).

Part 1:  Listening and Validating

Stuck in a conflict with your spouse or significant other?  Try this instead:  “I feel ____________”  (About what).  “I need ___________. ”

If you find yourself saying something like “I feel like you ____” Turn it around from your partner and focus on your feelings.  For example, “I feel lonely in the evening when we both just do our own thing.”  This puts the attention on your feelings and prevents your partner from feeling attacked.  This is more helpful than saying, “I hate that you just watch football all the time,” which can make the other person defensive.  Follow up with a specific need like, “I feel lonely in the evening when we both just do our own thing, I need…

“…to hang out together – is there something we can watch together tonight?”

“…to have some down time with you.  Let’s snuggle after we put the kids to bed.”

“…to know how things are going for you at work, tell me about it tonight at dinner.”

Are you listening to each other?  You’ll know if you can re-state what they said about how they feel about something.  Can your partner do the same?  Validating is another important step – listening is commenting on the fact that you heard the facts.  Validating is giving credit to the other person about their experience.  It doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with the problem.

Listening and validating is hard at times especially when you feel like the other person is not doing it.  Make it simple and start with yourself.  Asking for their accountability will be easier once you are accountable first.  But what if you tell your partner what you feel, about what, and what you need and you get rejected?  What are the signs that you and your partner may need help in moving past gridlock?

The opposites of the listening, validating, and accountability may be signs you need to consider couples therapy.  Rather than listening there is interruption, talking over each other, and heightened emotions.  In place of validation is a lack of empathy and understanding for each other.  The tender vulnerability is absent.  Instead of personal accountability there is blame, minimization of each other’s feelings, or denial.  These behaviors not only affect each person in the couple relationship but if the couple has children it affects them as well.  Even when parents try to protect their children from these conflicts it is difficult to hide the emotionally tense climate this creates in the home.  Couples who are able to listen to each other, validate one another, share their feelings, ask directly for what they need, and take accountability for their own actions put themselves in a better place to dialogue about the problems and conflicts in their relationship.

Next week, the essential skills needed to work through conflict.  Please click here for more information about couples therapy.

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Traditions of the Wise

I know that as I write this post that you, my readers, are in Plano, Frisco, around here locally.  But also in other wonderful places and countries – how great it is to be connected so far away!  I also respect that if you are here that you’re looking for help in some issue going on that a counseling perspective might help.  But also, some of you have found my site because, well, my last name is Wisdom… and you’re looking for that because of a pressing need.  So, as I write, I want you to know I have you both in mind.

I’ve been thinking of a story for the last few weeks that keeps pushing on me to get out.  For those of us who celebrate Christmas there is this popular thing called “traditions”.  Like singing carols, eating turkey, or cutting a tree to decorate.  I think traditions are good – they bring us together for something important to us all.  But I wonder, just how life-changing are our tradtions?  And if you’re going through something hard then what use do traditions have?

I love the story of the magi in Matthew chapter 2.  It is important to remember that this event likely happened sometime after Jesus’ birth since He is called a “Child” (Matt. 2:9, 11) residing in a house (Matt. 2:11) whereas in Luke 2:12 Jesus is referred to as a “baby” lying in a feeding trough.  But the family is still in Bethlehem and has obviously moved from the birthplace of the manger at the inn to a house.  Then the magi appear.  There is not much to go on from the passage in Matthew.  Magi were known in the ancient near east to be a caste of wise men who were skilled at magical powers, interpreting signs, expounding sacred writings, astrology and several other activities.  How these magi knew about the story of Jesus is not exactly known.  You wonder, even if they did follow an amazing star or planet how they knew the story of Him being born as a King?  It is possible that Jewish scholars brought to Babylon during Israel’s captivity and remaining behind eventually dialogued with magi about the revelation of the Messiah.  Perhaps the magi learned about this just as Herod did from local priests and scribes as they quoted Micah 5:2.  But what could have propelled a group of individuals to travel such a great distance and for what purpose?

This scene has been heavily commercialized and in many stores in the U.S. you can find wise men figurines decked out in every color with ornate turbans and robes bearing their gifts.  The scene is normally the same – they came and gave their gifts and then left.  But what if?

What if these wise men in their country of origin heard the story of God able to deliver a nation, a people from bondage.  To find them, rescue them, deliver them, and guide them?  Just perhaps, there was something going on in their personal lives and the life of their nation that prompted them in such a way that stories about God and the Messiah burned within them that maybe He could do the same for them and their people.  You wonder.  It seems following stars was their thing because that’s how they left their country and followed a star until they came to Bethlehem.  I don’t know much about astronomy but I wonder what the constellations are like over what was formerly Babylon and if those have ever changed.  There must have been some movement, something miraculous that was so obvious these wise men, both individually and collectively, connected it with the stories they had heard about God.  And what a sacrifice!  These were not just a group of people leaving a country – I am sure it was a national political and leadership sacrifice perhaps to send these envoys.  And their treasury was filled with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Valuable enough for Joseph to sustain his family in Egypt temporarily while Herod’s search for the Messiah ended with his own death.

There had to be an exchange.  It was not simply dropping off the gifts and bowing, as important as that was.  They were later warned by God in a dream (Matt. 2:12) to not return to Herod but depart for their country by another way.  Surely they were changed.  Afterall, they came to worship Him (Matt. 2:2).  Imagine the confirmation they must have received in their hearts and minds from the prophecies they heard in their own land now confirmed by seeing the Messiah as a Child.  They surely must have taken this experience home with the effect rippling throughout their nation.  Even as a Child Christ was able to bring people together and orchestrate events in history.  Much more, the story shows His love for everyone local and far away.

Perhaps during this season of your life you are going through something very difficult.  That’s why you’re looking at sites, for help, for Wisdom.  I wonder if the “Traditions of the Wise” might apply in some way.

  • Allow yourself to be compelled – it’s a call to action.  If you can’t be compelled and follow through in the little things how can you in the big things?  Think of these magi leaving everything temporarily to follow the star.
  • Sacrifice.  Anything worth doing will cost you something.  There is no url to get around this.  It was a long and dangerous journey the magi took to get to Bethlehem.
  • Move out of the status quo.  These were a small group out of a larger caste.  Surely they were questioned, maybe ridiculed, or threatened.  Were magi really known for travelling?
  • Risk.  They had to have the support of their families or at least their leadership.  They might have risked everything they had worked for because of this single prophetic calling.
  • Be in awe.  Of what God can do.
  • Find what you’re looking for.  Deep inside the human condition is a longing for completion.
  • Go back home.  Stay grounded.  The magi departed for their country (Matt. 2:12) but they took a different way this time.  Go back home changed.  Model that change for others.

I would love to know what you think about this post.  Please leave me a comment below and I’ll respond to you.  Blessings to you this season.

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Reversing the Predictors of Divorce

Marriage is similar to a garden – when nurtured, cared for, and cherished it grows to become a place of solace for those responsible for it. With an attentive eye and hard-working hands the soil can produce lovely and fruitful plants as well as shade and shelter for winged guests. Gardens, like marriages, are not static – they are living and dynamic. Left alone and neglected, what was originally planned can be overcome by drought, weeds, and harmful hosts. Marriages, like gardens, require attention and work to be enjoyed and endure. If you love gardens and wanted a really great one would you listen to a master-gardener tell you four things you must do to cultivate a prize-winner? What about for your marriage?

Therapist and researcher, John Gottman, Ph.D.,in collaboration with Robert W. Levenson, has done this in his work with couples. Through extensive research spanning 18 years including seven longitudinal studies with a total of 677 couples Gottman was able to predict whether or not a relationship was headed for divorce. He found that if certain attitudes and behaviors were present in a relationship it actually predicted divorce. He termed these “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling (Gottman, 1999).

Criticism is not complaining about the other partner – it is attributing negative characterization to the other person. Criticism goes beyond the irritation of certain behaviors in a relationship to directing this negativity to the other person’s personality and identity. Defensiveness is the inability to be accountable for anything that might contribute to problems in the relationship. It is a self-righteous stance against the other partner. Contempt, the greatest predictor of divorce, is different from criticism in that whereas criticism directs negativity to the other person’s character in individual matters of behavior contempt is like a wholesale slaughter of the other person. Contempt includes forms of verbal abuse such as name-calling. Last is stonewalling. This is just as it sounds – putting up an impenetrable wall against the other person. Stonewalling is a silent killer of emotional withdrawal; the refusal to interact humanly with the other partner.

So how does one notice these weeds in their relationship and go about counteracting them? Gottman suggests that instead of criticism a couple focus on gently starting discussions about complaints in the relationship. This is in contrast to harshly starting an argument which usually escalates sending the other partner into defense mode. Defensiveness can be replaced with mutual responsibility. Each partner must fully face their own accountability in the matters of the relationship and what they contribute to the problems they experience. You cannot expect your partner to be accountable unless you are willing to go there yourself. Contempt must be replaced by building a culture or atmosphere in the relationship of appreciation and respect. It is about removing superiority and viewing the other person with gratitude, love, and respect. Lastly, instead of stonewalling partners can do physiological soothing of self and one another. This is noticing when you feel in your body the signs of escalation during a conflict and counteract this with calming yourself in order to emotionally engage with your partner in a mutual calming manner.

People experiencing possible separation or divorce come at this from different angles –some feel shocked the other person wants out, while others have felt in a long tug of war eventually given up and possibly lost. Relationships, like gardens, can be turned around. The counteracting agents, however, are not static one-time remedies – they are dynamic ways of living and being with this other person that must be lived out personally on a daily basis.

Recommended Reading: What Predicts Divorce? and Why Relationships Succeed or Fail by John Gottman.

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