Marriage models: one type does not fit all
Why does criticism almost always prove counterproductive?
"One of the great paradoxes in therapy is that people don’t change unless they feel accepted as they are." So you cannot effect change in your spouse unless s/he is secure in your acceptance. To that end, you must communicate that you "value and respect" your spouse." But it only works if it is genuine. It has to be real – and it can’t just be empty words that are said to get an effect" (184). Criticism is more often directed by women at their husbands than the other way around, hence the stereotype of the demanding wife and the withdrawing husband. What happens is that as they find their husbands to still not live up to their demands, wives intensity their criticism. Their husbands respond, not by changing their behavior for the better, but by further withdrawal.
What's wrong with gong on the defensive?
The defensive reaction is focused on freeing oneself of the blame and so neglects to attend to the feelings the other is attempting to express. "By mentally freeing yourself of any responsibility for the conflict, you don’t have to do any work to save your marriage. But that’s exactly the problem with this way of thinking. . .. . as long as you excuse yourself from repairing the relationship, your marital problems are unlikely to improve" (106-107). You have to get beyond that impasse of thinking yourself in the right if you are to work on being happy together. "The first step toward breaking out of defensiveness is to no longer see your partner’s words as an attack but as information that is being strongly expressed” (92). The goal is not to show the partner to be in the wrong but to appreciate his/her point of view and offer empathy. Understanding and empathizing with your spouse can bring you closer together, while defensiveness maintains your differences.
Would it be better to just remain silent in the face of your partner’s complaints? This non-reaction, called stonewalling, is actually the reaction that is likely to be chosen by husbands: "85 percent of stonewallers are men" (147). But removing oneself emotionally actually exacerbates the conflict. The controlled, cool reaction does make the situation worse, for the stonewalling stance conveys "disapproval, icy distance, and smugness" (94).
What about offering to fix the problem?
That brings us to the phenomenon that always astounds well-meaning men. When a husband offers a solution to a problem his wife complains about, why does she get upset with him? Dr. Gottman explains that the wives are seeking "validation" and so find their husbands’ "hyperrational" reaction to their feelings distancing. "Rather than acknowledge the emotional content of their wife’s words, they try to offer a practical solution to the problem being described." That doesn't work because don't want to be told what they should do but to be heard and have their feelings acknowledged. 159). Responding with empathy is not humoring someone unreasonable just to avoid an argument but crossing beyond one’s own emotional boundaries to appreciate the experience of another.
Achieving longevity in a marriage
Happily ever after does not just happen on its own accord. Shidduchim are a result of a Heavenly directive, but good marriages have to be worked on here on earth. It is not enough to marry "the right person" to assure the longevity of the relationship. Both partners must commit to accepting the other, accepting responsibility for their reactions, and sustaining the positives ratio needed to keep the marriage strong.