Eighty percent of the time it’s the wife who brings up problems in a marriage. It’s the husband who tries to avoid talking about them. That’s what researcher Dr. John Gottman discovered in decades of studying marriages in his University of Washington “Love Lab” in Seattle. This poses a challenge to couples who want to resolve marital conflict.
Dr. Gottman’s statistic rings true in my own marriage. After 28 years with my wife, I can sense by the way she takes a breath before she speaks she’s about to bring up a problem. At that moment, adrenaline rushes through my veins, and I feel like running away before she shares her complaint or concern.
For several years, my tendency was to get defensive. Sometimes, I still do. Most of us get defensive without even noticing it. We hold our ground, refuse to budge, or play the innocent victim. Whatever form it takes, a defensive posture is an attempt to put ownership of the problem back on the person who brought it up.
But defensiveness isn’t helpful, and gets in the way of solving problems and a happy marriage. So, I try to avoid it. When defensiveness spirals out of control in marriages, couples often refuse to talk, or avoid each other. This stonewalling often results in a dissatisfying marriage, and in divorce.
While this is partly due to cultural influences, many men also seem biologically wired to “take charge.” In marriages, husbands often take the lead, and do so without considering how their choices will influence their wife. They haven’t learned to accept their wife’s influence.
Wives can also take a lead role in a marriage, failing to consider their husband’s wishes. But Dr. Gottman’s research reveals wives as more likely than their husbands to yield to their spouse’s wishes and make concessions.
I’m sure you’ve noticed those diamond-shaped, yellow signs on roadways reminding drivers to yield to merging traffic. When a husband and wife give thoughtful consideration to each other’s interests and wishes, it’s like allowing a driver to merge into your lane. If that driver was your husband or wife, hopefully you’d give them special treatment. Spouses who make a practice of yielding to each other tend to be happier and in more satisfying marriages than those who don’t. They enjoy being together, respect and trust each other, and feel loved. They may not get everything they want in resolution to a conflict. They may need to slow down or change lanes. But couples who yield to each other’s influence get more of what they desire from a marriage.
What are the keys to avoiding defensiveness and accepting each other’s influence?
1) Use the Soft Start-Up
Many spouses make the mistake of bringing up problems in a manner perceived as harsh. The words they use jolt their partner like a mild electric shock. Avoid raising issues with phrases like these:
“Why didn’t you…”
Instead, begin with a soft start-up. This is done by expressing curiosity, asking for something, or by stating how you feel. Soft start-ups begin with phrases like these:
“I’m curious about…”
“I’d really be happy if you…”
“I feel disappointed when you…”
Be careful to not combine these softer phrases with harsh ones. For example, don’t raise a concern using a phrase like, “I was wondering why you never…”
2) Recognize Your Defensiveness
When your spouse raises an issue, pay attention to the first words out of your mouth. Avoid sentences beginning with words and phrases like these:
“It’s not my…”
These words and phrases often accompany defensive statements.
If you’re brave, you may also ask your spouse to kindly point out when you’re speaking defensively. Of course, your response to being called on this better not be, “No I’m not!”
3) Look for Yes
When either spouse raises a sensitive topic, the impulse from the other may be to jump to “No.” When a concern is raised by your spouse, and you notice yourself becoming tense, pause before you say anything. Take a breath. Be curious. Ask questions that will help you better understand what your spouse is asking you to do. Then look for aspects of their request that you can say “Yes” to. It may not be necessary for you to agree to all that’s being asked of you. By agreeing to do some of what’s asked, you increase the odds of resolving the conflict with both of you winning.
A version of this post also appeared on LifeZette.com.