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Three Things You Can Do Today, To Improve Your Marriage

Updated: Jul 16

Written by Ashley Gray, LCSW, MFTC

Nothing stings like relationship issues. When things are off in your marriage or committed relationship, it seems to bleed into every other part of your life. No matter what the issue is, it all comes down to disconnection. You may expect your partner to show up in a certain way or hope that you can show in a particular way. When one or both of those things isn’t happening, it can feel confusing, distrustful, like the relationship is not a place where needs can be met. This is disconnection. So how do you get on the same page again? 

As you can imagine, there are a million different things that can lead to a couple being disconnected and therefore there are a million different things that can bring them back

together. What I have found is that there are some main areas that once we start making some changes, it begins a positive ripple effect. This post covers 3 different approaches to start with, but there are many more that can help. 

  1. The Four Horsemen of Conflict Communication from the Gottman Method

The number one complaint of couples entering therapy is communication issues. Sometimes you have a very important message to convey to your partner, but your delivery prevents you from being listened to. Dr. John and Julie Gottman have identified four behaviors that when they are present in communication and go unchecked and unrepaired, they can lead to the end of the relationship. Being able to identify these Four Horsemen in your relationship (we all have them at some point in our relationships) and change course can allow you to connect more with your partner by being able to truly hear your partner and feel heard by them.

These Four Horsemen are Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Contempt. Criticism is when you blame the issues of your relationship on your partner’s characteristics. This doesn’t create space for their version of events, which makes them feel unheard. When they feel unheard, your partner tends to make space for their reality by focusing on the exception to the situation you’re mentioning or the circumstances that led to your need not being met. This, of course, is defensiveness. Refraining from criticism can help prevent defensiveness. To prevent criticism, the Gottman Method suggests using a gentle start-up. 

A gentle start-up is using kind and honoring verbal and non-verbal communication to state your complaint. A complaint is different from criticism in that it states your needs and feelings versus focusing solely on your partner’s wrong doings. You can do this with an “I” statement. This can sound like, “I feel angry, stressed and disappointed when I end up doing the dishes every night during the week. I need a break from this task and I would really appreciate it if you could help by doing the dishes at least two nights a week.” Speaking in this way refrains from judgment and makes it clear what the issue and the need is. It is harder for someone to be defensive when they are being communicated with using gentle language that does not make a judgment about them.

Other ways to engage in a gentle start-up include using relaxed body language, picking a time and place to talk that is private and convenient for you both (when possible) and using a respectful tone of voice instead of talking down to your partner.

We now know that criticizing behavior often leads your partner to become defensive, so let’s take a look at defensiveness .  

Defensiveness occurs when someone is not taking responsibility for their actions. Instead they may focus on their intentions, the circumstances that led them to do something, the times when they showed up when for you. Sometimes this defensiveness comes from a place of them really wanting you to understand that their mistake was not intentional, that they did not want to hurt you. Having good intentions never makes up for the harm caused, when someone hurts someone they still need to take responsibility regardless of their intentions. In some instances, it may be helpful to remember that your partner did not intend to hurt you, because it may help you remember that they are someone who loves you, which can make it easier to connect again after they take responsibility. I want to be very clear though that their good intentions does not mean that you have to forgive them or act as though it didn’t hurt you. They still need to take responsibility for their actions and work to not hurt you in the same way. Not surprisingly, the antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility.

Our third Horseman is stonewalling. Stonewalling occurs when a partner or both partners refuse to communicate, often as a result of a difficult conversation where one or both partners became overwhelmed. The Gottmans refer to this physiological state of overwhelm as being “flooded”. A sign that you are flooded is an increased heart rate. This reaction is not one that a person chooses, nor is it solely an emotional response. Another sign, is when you and/or your partner is repeating the same argument within the disagreement. Flooding is a physiological response. You might assume that the antidote for stonewalling is having a conversation. While having a conversation at some point is necessary, it is not the antidote. The antidote is to take space from the difficult conversation and return to it later once you are calm. Before you take space from the conversation, let your partner know that you are flooded/overwhelmed, that you need a break and when you will return to the conversation. This helps prevent your partner feeling like they are being abandoned. While taking that break, you will want to do something to help cope with the emotions you are experiencing, so that they do not feel as overwhelming. I suggest journaling to help you reflect on your feelings, taking a walk or any other coping skill that you have learned is useful for you. You will know that you are ready to return to the conversation when parts of what your partner’s perspective or choice of behaviors makes sense to you. I simply mean that you can understand how they arrived at a conclusion or made a decision, not that you agree with it.

The fourth Horseman, Contempt is when you believe that you are better than your partner. This could be that you believe you’re better than them at a particular skill or it could be that you believe that you’re a better person than them entirely.  The Gottman’s share that this is the worst of the Four Horsemen as this trait alone is the greatest predictor that a relationship will end. It can also impact the physical health of both the giver and receiver of the contempt.

To keep this trait from ruining your relationship, it is best to focus on sharing your own feelings and needs and also consider what parts of what your partner’s experience make sense to you. Where can you have some empathy. It can also be helpful to work on the friendship part of your relationship. Spend time with your partner that allows you both to be playful, funny, lighthearted, rather than only discussing logistics or the difficult parts of your relationship. A couple that plays together stays together.

If you would like to learn more about the Four Horsemen and their antidotes from the Gottman website, click here

2. The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman

We all have ways that we prefer to love and be loved in our relationships. Gary Chapman, author of, The 5 Love Languages, helps us give words to this experience with his book. The 5 Love Languages include, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Physical Touch, Acts of Service and Gift Giving. Some people can tell just what their primary Love Languages are just from the name of the language itself, others need a little more information. Words of Affirmation refers to those like receiving genuine compliments. Those who have Quality Time as a primary Love Language like uninterrupted time together; no cellphones, no distractions, just focusing on one another.  Physical touch can be anything from hugs, cuddling and hand holding to sex. Acts of Service refers to the tasks that take off of your partner’s plate for them by completing them yourself. Gift Giving is, of course, giving gifts, but it can be as simple as picking a flower from your garden for them, making your partner something to give them or buying something inexpensive and extend all the way up to more elaborate gifts. To get clear on your Love Languages can help you communicate your needs to your partner and if your partner takes the quiz, you can understand what they need to feel loved. Even if you have taken the Love Languages quiz before, your Love Languages can change over time. It might be helpful for you and your partner to take it again and share your results with one another. I often suggest looking at your top three Love Languages and your partner’s top three and observing where there is overlap. These can be a great way to reconnect after a fight or at the end of the day. The link to the quiz is below for your convenience.

5 Love Languages Quiz: here.

The 5 Love Languages website also has apology language quizzes, handling anger quizzes and an appreciation at work quiz.

3. Attachment Styles Quiz

           Attachment theory is a pretty well known theory right now, but there is some misinformation around it, especially around the permanence of a style. Attachment is how we give and receive love based on how we have experienced it in the past. This starts with your parents, but is shaped by significant relationships throughout your lifespan. That does not mean that you are stuck with the same attachment style your entire life or that every interaction is based in just one attachment style. You tend to have attachment styles that you lead with, but can draw from more than one attachment style in different situations and with different people. A person’s individual experience can feel more like having a combination of attachment styles.     

The different attachment styles are anxious attachment, avoidant, disorganized and secure. With anxious attachment patterns you may often fear losing connection with your partner. In response to this fear, you will push for more closeness and reassurance within the relationship. You may often read into interactions with your partner and mistake certain behaviors or interactions as signs that things are going well or not going well, even if that is not what they mean. When you can’t be near them you may reach out excessively and/or doubt their loyalty in the relationship. When they return, you may criticize them excessively. You tend to prefer calming down with your partner, which is known as co-regulation. Your more vulnerable fears likely consist of being abandoned, being too much and being lonely.

Avoidant attachment is where you may fear losing your identity and independence in the relationship. Therefore, you tend to push for opportunities to be by yourself or at least doing things without your partner. You may downplay the significance of the relationship by struggling to commit, pulling away physically or emotionally, refraining from relationship symbols like posting on social media or wearing wedding rings. However, it is important to note that these behaviors (regarding the symbols), on their own do not necessarily denote an avoidant attachment, it is still important to look at number of different aspects within the relationship. With an avoidant attachment, you tend to prefer calming down on your own rather than with your partner, this is referred to as self-regulation. More vulnerable fears that you may have when experiencing the avoidant part of your attachment are fear of being a burden, fear of losing yourself, shame, fear of being, “the bad guy”.

Disorganized attachment style is comprised of patterns that appear anxious at times and avoidant at other times. With disorganized attachment patterns, there tends to be a rapid oscillation between anxious and avoidant patterns. These patterns are confusing to both you and your partner as you fear both losing the relationship and being consumed by it and thereby losing your individuality. These behavioral patterns can look like emotional outbursts, indecisiveness, pushing your pattern away and retaliating against their distance. You may fear calming down at times, as it may feel like it puts you in a vulnerable position. When calming down does feel safe, you will sometimes feel most comfortable calming down on your own and other times you will feel most comfortable calming down with your partner. Your core fears may consist of being wrong, getting hurt and a relationship being your downfall. 

Secure attachment is considered the healthiest attachment style. With a secure attachment style you do not fear that you’ll lose the relationship or lose yourself. You trust yourself, your partner and your relationship most of the time. Communication, independence and connection typically do not bring up any concerns for you. You trust that you and your partner can make it through hard times and typically meet each other’s needs well. There is rarely drama in your relationship that comes from the relationship itself. Most of the time, you can accurately assess whether you need to calm yourself on your own or with your partner. Fears in the relationship may look like fears of the relationship becoming stagnant, missing your partner’s needs or imbalance. If you do not have a predominantly secure attachment you can work towards one. 

Working towards a secure attachment starts with understanding your attachment styles, where those attachment styles come from, how those attachment styles impact the relationship communication and behaviors, learn what attachment needs arise and how those needs are or are not being met in the relationship, learn how to lean into the uncomfortable parts of your relationship by learning new self-regulation and co-regulation techniques as well as new communication approaches, implementing healthy conflict resolution and ultimately working to meet attachment needs within the context of the relationship.

Below is the link to a free attachment quiz that can help you understand your unique attachment combination. The quiz typically takes about 5 minutes to complete.

My Free Attachment Quiz: here.

Learn how to self-regulate and co-regulate using my free, regulation guides here.

I hope these suggestions help you view your relationship and your role in your relationship differently. While this may not be all that is needed to change the negative patterns in your relationship, it is a place to start. Keep an eye out for future blog posts for even more relationship tips.

This post is written by individual and couples therapist, Ashley Gray of Arvada, Colorado. Ashley works with her clients using Gottman Method Couples Therapy, EMDR, Prepare and Enrich, attachment focused therapy and techniques from Emotionally Focused Therapy. In her free time, Ashley hikes, paddle boards, reads, spends time with her husband and her cuddly dog. For more information about Ashley and her practice, click here.


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