Some Practical Tools for Rescuing Your Marriage

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Reader’s Question

My wife and I have been married four years now, and have separated numerous times. We are just recently back together. We both make promises every time, and there has been infidelity on both sides. We have three kids.

This time around, I got her a job at my work, and all she has wanted to do is try and dig up my past encounters while we were separated with the few co-workers I have who know some of what I do. Although she had her own affairs, and actually was the first to have had an affair, she won’t stop digging. Every day now she comes home on lunch and throws something in my face. I don’t bring up her past anymore, and I haven’t in a long time. What’s the deal? I want this to work, and I have even bought us a new home to show that I’m in this whole-heartedly.

Psychologist’s Reply

While I salute you and your wife for making the effort to put your marriage and family back together, it sounds like there is a lot of work to do before this relationship is a healthy one. The stressors of working together, having three children, and having a history of infidelity on both sides would be enough to jeopardize any relationship. While mistrust is a common and natural feeling for spouses to experience after a marital infidelity by their partner, it seems that your wife’s behavior is sabotaging the commitment you both have made to restoring your marriage.

You haven’t mentioned whether you and your wife have done any couples counseling together to help work through the issues in your marriage. This is an obvious first step that you need to take in order give yourselves a chance to recreate — or create for the first time — a functional partnership that will benefit the two of you and your three kids. A qualified couples therapist will work with the two of you to identify maladaptive patterns in your relationship and help you find new ways to communicate with and perceive each other.

John Gottman is an acknowledged expert in the field of research-based couples therapy. His research identified what he refers to as the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ for marriages: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.

Criticism
Criticism is going to be present even in the best of marriages. However, Gottman’s work distinguishes between ‘normal’ types of complaints (“You left the lid off the ketchup again. That is so annoying!”), which are situation specific, and harsher criticism (“You are such a moron, you forgot to close the ketchup bottle again. I have to clean up after you like you’re a toddler. You treat me like your maid!”), which is more general and personal. In each case, the cause of the complaint is the same, but in more troubled marriages the tendency is to respond by attacking the person rather than focusing on the cause itself.
Contempt
This is known as the most damaging of the Four Horsemen, and is the greatest predictor of divorce. Contempt can be anything from hostile humor to eye rolling, sarcasm, mocking, or any other means of communication that expresses disgust with your partner. This behavior is demeaning to the receiving spouse, and makes conflict resolution exceedingly difficult. It is hard to focus on creating a solution to a problem if you are feeling demeaned and belittled. This behavior can be the result of long-standing negative feelings about the relationship that have not been addressed; unless those feelings can be resolved, the marriage is unlikely to survive.
Defensiveness
This is a natural reaction to feeling criticized or treated with contempt by a partner: when we are attacked, we naturally want to defend ourselves! However, in a relationship this can have negative repercussions. Defensive behavior leads us away from apologies and reconciliation, to a more blaming perspective. It pulls partners further apart, making it easier to blame, criticize, and demean each other, rather than work towards a more reasoned effort by each person to understand the other’s feelings.
Stonewalling
The last of the Horsemen, stonewalling, tends to occur later in marriages, and is more common in men. This behavior is a reaction to frequent, long-term conflict in a marriage, and amounts to a withdrawal from the other partner. Rather than engaging in conflict, the stonewalling partner checks out emotionally and (often) physically. This can look like a husband choosing to spend all his time in a room away from his wife, rather than being near her in the house and risking confrontation and conflict. Even if the other partner tries to engage, the stonewaller behaves as if the argument is not happening.

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In reading your description of your marriage, signs of the Four Horsemen are clearly apparent in the way you and your wife relate to each other. Particularly concerning is the contempt expressed when she “throws in your face” tidbits she has raked up from your past. For the sake of your marriage you should seek a qualified couples therapist in your area to work with the two of you to improve your communication and behavior with each other, as well as work through past issues such as both of your infidelities. You could also do some self-help by reading Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], or by working together through the exercises in Couple Skills: Making Your Relationship Work [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], by Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning and Kim Paleg. While you do, be mindful of the Four Horsemen, and do your best to eliminate these behaviors from your own repertoire. Hopefully the positive difference in you will inspire your wife to feel similarly motivated to change.

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