How To Change Toxic Marital Patterns

It’s those magical “ah ha” moments that make marital therapy a highlight in my counseling practice. Most come in with intense conflict, discouragement, or crisis. Then the moment of truth emerges.

I’ve had some “ah ha” moments of my own.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman call it the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse – identifying what results in physical or emotional divorce. Their 40 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples revealed some “ah ha” moments for me. It all made sense.

The four horsemen are, criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. I could now help couples recognize and minimize the secret killers. On the other hand, I’ve termed the life-giving antidotes The Four Angels of Acceptance.   

We’ll cover each of the four horsemen in the next four posts. We’ll get to know what each of the Four Angels of Acceptance are and how to be intentional about them.  

Horseman  # 1 – Criticism

For some, criticism and negative thinking is a deeply ingrained character trait. We may not recognize when we do it. Those of us with “fix it” mentalities, look for ways to point out what another could do to improve. Criticism is magnifying the negative and disregarding the positive.

Critical remarks are usually judgmental “You” or “Master Talk” statements. It’s more than a minor complaint such as: “Our house is such a mess. We need to spend time to clean today.”

Criticism sounds more like: 

  • “Our house is such a mess. You’re too lazy to clean it up.”
  • “You’re ideas are ridiculous. You don’t have a clue.”
  • “You don’t care about me; all you care about is yourself.”

Criticism attacks the character of a spouse. Criticism puts the criticizer in a position of being judge and jury against the spouse.

Angel of Acceptance # 1 – Vulnerability and Praise

The Angel of Acceptance thrives on living in reality. It means having a realistic view of self and spouse. It’s the ability to know one’s own worthiness of love, and see one’s spouse as a gift from God.

When conflict happens, (and it always does), Vulnerability may sound like this:

  • “Clutter makes me anxious. What can I do to partner with you to clean up?”
  • “I don’t quite get your reasoning, but help me understand.”
  • “My opinion is not gospel truth. I’m curious about how you’re experiencing me.”

Praise requires looking for positives in the other. It’s being open to growth. It’s recognizing our own blind spots. Its the ability to compliment the positive character traits of your spouse. Examples look like:

  • “I’d love a clean house, but I really appreciate how care for our children.” 
  • “I appreciate our differences. You help me think beyond my own perspective.” 
  • “I’m thankful that you help me be more aware of myself and how I come across to you.”

In the next post I’ll address the second of the Four Horsemen and Angel of Acceptance. For now, join the conversation.

Questions to Ponder

How have you praised your spouse lately?

How open are you to your own growth in your marriage?