I recently overheard a couple arguing in Walmart about the important issue of—wait for it—what brand of allergy medicine to purchase. It was less of an argument and more of the husband’s frustrated monologue. While what brand of allergy medicine to choose is no big deal, this man’s mean and scary response to his wife was. Communication for couples is not easy, but it doesn’t have to be mean, hurtful, and divisive.
Leading marriage researcher John Gottman uses a metaphor to describe the 4 communication styles that predict a marriage will end in divorce. He calls them the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which are enemies of your marriage. I prefer calling them the 4 Big, Bad Bears of Marriage. Gottman’s metaphor is a bit too terrifying for me. Bears I can fix with honey; horsemen of the apocalypse can only be fixed with something way bigger than honey. But bears are still, well, bears. Here’s how to run from the 4 big, bad bears of marriage.
1. The Big, Bad Bear of Criticism
Voicing a complaint is different from voicing a criticism. A complaint focuses on an issue or topic. A criticism is an attack on your wife’s character. Here’s an example of the difference:
Complaint: “I feel devalued when you leave messes for me to clean up.”
Criticism: “You always leave messes around the house. I think you don’t clean up because you know I will. You are selfish.”
To avoid the criticism, use “I” statements and tell your wife what you need. Ask yourself: When I am frustrated with my wife, do I complain or criticize?
2. The Big, Bad Bear of Defensiveness
We can get defensive in response to a criticism from our wives. We can often make excuses, play the victim, or downplay our bad behavior by exaggerating theirs. For instance, your wife is frustrated you didn’t remember it was your turn to pick up your son from practice. You respond with, “You always focus on all the things I do wrong. You never praise me for the things I do right.”
To avoid defensiveness, accept feedback and apologize. Ask yourself: How did I respond to my wife’s last complaint?
3. The Big, Bad Bear of Stonewalling
Stonewalling is dealing with the situation by not dealing with the situation. We withdraw emotionally or even physically. We shut down, ignore, or stop responding. We pout. For instance, your wife voices her frustration with your spending habits. You don’t respond and go into the other room to play video games.Husbands, while you cannot control your wife’s response, you have 100% control of yours.
Ask yourself: Do I stay engaged during uncomfortable moments with my wife?
4. The Big, Bad Bear of Contempt
Contempt is even worse than criticism and the deadliest of the 4 big, bad bears. It is nothing short of mean. Contempt goes as far as mocking, mimicking, and using body language that communicates disgust. For instance:
“All you do is talk about how hard your life is. You go to work every day, but you have no idea what it is like to have a real job. You act like a spoiled child.”
To avoid contempt, focus on what you love about your spouse, and let her know often. Ask yourself: Am I ever mean to my wife?
Husbands, while you cannot control your wife’s response, you have 100% control of yours.
Sound off: Which of the 4 big, bad bears of marriage do you find it hardest to avoid?
Huddle Up Question
Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Do I ever scare you or hurt your feelings? When did I last do that?”