Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Building Friendship: Turning Toward One Another to Overcome Criticism and Defensiveness

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Building Friendship: Turning Toward One Another to Overcome Criticism and Defensiveness

"I find selfishness to be the root cause of most of [the problems that lead to broken homes]. I am satisfied that a happy marriage is not so much a matter of romance as it is an anxious concern for the comfort and well-being of one's companion." 

-Gordan B. Hinckley (Goddard, 2009, p. 62).

Link: Criticism
This week, we will be discussing how to overcome Gottman's "horseman" of criticism, which is where a person makes a personal attack against someone's character. This horseman is typically accompanied by defensiveness. Overcoming both of these horsemen, as well as contempt, will help to prevent the fourth horseman, stonewalling.

The antidote to criticism is a facet of friendship where the couple turns toward one another. What does this mean? Well, let's illustrate this through a short story told by H. Wallace Goddard, Ph.D., in his book, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage: A young man was getting ready to be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but his wife was adamantly against the idea. Every time the subject of this church or baptism was brought up, the wife became angry.

At his wit's end, the husband sought out counsel for what to do about loving his wife while also loving his choice of a church. The counsel he received was inspired: "Next time you and your wife begin to discuss your baptism and you start to feel anger and frustration, stop. Say no more for a moment. Then take your wife in your arms and hold her tight. Tell her that you love her, you appreciate her, and nothing will take her place in your life" (Goddard, 2009, p. 61).

Link: Tearful Embrace
The husband followed this counsel the next time he and his wife began to argue about the husband's imminent commitment to his newfound faith. What happened as a result? Both the husband and the wife wept tears of healing as they embraced one another. Then, they were able to peaceably discuss for several hours the husband's convictions and why he wanted to make this step in his life with his wife's support. Their love was able to overcome the desires of each party to win the argument (p. 61-62).

Dr. John Gottman and Nan Silver emphasize the need for a couple to let each other know their commitment to one another. However, it is usually not through large gestures as illustrated in the previous story. Rather, it is in the small actions couples make to one another during everyday living. It is by the couple noticing bids for attention and then giving that needed attention to one another (Gottman & Silver, 2015, p. 88). Bids for attention may be when your spouse asks you for assistance with a project, giving each other a kiss goodbye when parting and kissing when brought together again, when your spouse complains of an aching back (code for, "Will your rub my back, please?"), when they ask you to pick up something for them from the store, or when they come up behind you and put their arms around you (code for: "I want your attention right now, Hot Stuff."). Dr. John Gottman discovered that successful couples pick up on their spouse's cues for attention about 86% of the time (p.88). This means that it's normal for some bids to slip through the cracks because you simply didn't notice them. However, the more often you can pick up on your spouse's bids and do something about them, the better.

"Couples often ignore each other's emotional needs out of mindlessness, not malice."
-Dr. John Gottman (p. 94).

Some people worry that by giving someone attention when those bids are made will cause the other person to become spoiled. This simply isn't true in a marriage. In fact, the one person in your life you should be spoiling with your attention is your spouse. The "tendency to turn toward your partner is the basis of trust, emotional connection, passion, and a satisfying sex life" (p. 88). 

“Up to now, your first question has naturally been 'what is best for me'—how to use your time, money, school, work, whatever. But after your wedding, the biggest question is, 'What is best for our marriage, our family?' And that is a very hard thing to learn. . .Don’t expect immediate perfection—in him, in marriage, in the relationship . . . it takes time to grow into a whole new way of living”  -Bruce C. Hafen

Link: piggy-bank-in-love.jpg
Each time a couple turns toward one other, they are making deposits into what Gottman and Silver call the "emotional bank account". These deposits are like the money in a savings account that is set aside specifically for when times get hard, as they always do. The more deposits you make, the easier time you will have to make it through the hard times. See this link for ideas on how to do that.

Obstacles to turning toward one another:
  • You miss a bid because it is cloaked in negativity (p. 91). Example: 

Wife [very annoyed]: "Why is it that Stephanie's husband seems to understand that you should wait to give a person their gift ON their special day, not BEFORE?" 

To overcome bids like this, try to repeat back what you think the bid is translating into (without judgment or anger). Say: "I think what you are saying is that you would like for me to wait to give you your special present on your birthday. Is this correct?" 
If it isn't quite right, try to interpret the thought again and keep your voice neutral when you make your next guess. If you still don't understand, ask the person, calmly, to clarify what they are saying to you. Then repeat back what your spouse says to you. This may sound a little overly complicated, but it is important to realize that neither one of you can read each other's mind. Asking for clarity prevents misunderstandings.
  • Link: Proverbs 15:1
  • Second Obstacle: Being distracted by the wired world (p. 92). Set aside your electronic devices when your spouse is making a bid for your attention.

Link: Look at me!

Exercise 2 for turning toward one another and chasing away criticism and defensiveness: Have a stress-reducing conversation (p. 97).
  • Take turns. Each partner gets to complain for 15 minutes uninterrupted.
  • Show genuine interest. I know, this one can be tough, particularly if she is talking about the mishap at her hairdresser's or he is talking about basketball for the umpteenth time this week. However, it still conveys respect to maintain eye contact, ask clarifying questions, nod, say "uh-huh," etc. 
  • Don't give unsolicited advice.
    Link: Fix it? Don't fix it.
    Ooo! Another tough one, especially for men (women will be tempted to do this at times too)! My husband is a "fixer" by nature, so it has been especially difficult for him to learn that when I complain, it's usually because I want a "Poor baby!" sort of response (p.100). I want him to take my side of the matter, even if it's dumb. My husband sometimes calls this the "small circles" attention, which is where a person in emotional pain just wants someone to sit next to them, gently rub their back in a small, circular pattern (hence, the "small circles"), and allow them to talk about their troubles without judgment (I personally love physical contact, so the "small circles" approach works very well for me).
    There have been many times, particularly in the first several years of our marriage, where my husband gave advice when I haven't asked for it and it led to many arguments because I felt disrespected and felt like my intelligence was being called into question. It has taken years of warning my husband before I make a complaint that I am about to vent and that what I want him to do in order to "fix" my problem is to simply show genuine interest in what I have to say and not give any advice unless I specifically ask for it. He is also allowed to ask clarifying questions. My husband is now to the point where I no longer need to give him this full reminder. I simply have to warn him that I need to vent and he does the rest on his own. It's pretty great! 
  • Empathize: 
    Link: Empathy Phrases


The last bit of advice for this week:
Pray together! "When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. Our love of the Lord will govern the claims for our affection, the demands on our time, the interests we pursue, and the order of our priorities. We should put God ahead of everyone else in our lives." 

-Ezra Taft Benson (Goddard, 2009, p. 57)



Goddard, H.W., PhD (2009). Drawing heaven into your marriage. Cedar Hills, UT: Joymap Publishing.

Gottman, J.M, PhD, & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Harmony Books.

Hafen, B.C. (2013). Covenant marriage: Why marriage matters and how to make it last. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company.


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