My husband and I just celebrated our 5-year anniversary, and we took some time to reflect on all the things we have learned about life, marriage, and each other over that time. We have benefited from great Christian community, from my counseling courses, from trial and error, and from my work in the counseling room. I write these tips below to the nearly-wed, the newly-wed, the 50-year anniversaries, and the hopefuls. This is an attempt to help you avoid some of the mistakes I have made myself or seen others make.
1. Don’t argue in the stupid zone.
It’s not uncommon in a marriage for one spouse to want to resolve things immediately and the other to want to push it under the rug. I often hear: “He expects me to go to sleep when we haven’t resolved the fight we just had;” or “She always insists we resolve things right away, and I don’t know why we just can’t move on.” While it’s never advisable to push things under the rug in any long-term sense, sometimes there is wisdom in refraining from a conversation when certain physiological factors—and their emotional symptoms—are present.
Researcher John Gottman and Robert Levenson (who did decades of couple’s research) found that there was a physiological response or range that led to what Zach Brittle refers to as “erratic communication,” which ultimately led to criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt (what he calls the Four Horsemen) (Brittle, 2015). He’s referring to that lovely fight or flight response, when your heart rate increases to over 100 BPM, adrenaline increases and blood flows to your stomach and kidneys. One of my professors would always call this the “Stupid Zone” because it’s the place where nothing good is said or happens in an argument or heated discussion. The Bible attests to this in Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” This physical response doesn’t mean that you have to avoid the conversation altogether but learn as a couple how to manage the “Stupid Zone”.
Some effective strategies for managing stress when anger and frustration have taken our bodies into erratic communication include: utilizing breaks if the conversation isn’t over in a predetermined amount of time, establishing code words or phrases that let your partner know you are still invested but your body is beginning to enter fight/flight mode and you need a time out to let yourself settle. I know this may sound strange, but I assure you I have seen it work over and over again, including in my own marriage. When my husband and I argue, we often take things personally, and if we can remember to say “I love you, but I need to get away for 10 minutes” before we say something we will regret, we can prevent a lot of damage and heartache.
2. Community is important.
When my husband and I got married, I had some unrealistic expectations; so, when we started having normal newlywed arguments about money, making decisions, extended family, etc., I felt like we had completely failed as a couple because I had expected total bliss. In my heart this created a lot of shame and fear, and in my husband, it created a lot of anger and frustration. We are both quite strong-willed, and this was an intense and scary period with a lot of unknowns.
As we became more and more aware of our situation, we began to reach out to those close to us and share our struggles. These friends, family, and church members cared for us, affirmed that we weren’t alone, and gave us tools for working through the season of being newly married. Community has been essential to us in our marriage and we have been able to help others in turn. Our church family helps us both stay accountable to be our best for each other, for ourselves, and for God (see, for example, Hebrews 10:24-25, Proverbs 27:17).
In the counseling room it is very common for couples to express that they’ve been working alone to fight for the relationship; often others are only brought alongside to help when a big crisis hits, or a situation nears a point of no return. Safe community can be a place where shame, fear, sin, carelessness, and any number of things we all want to avoid can be dispelled and we can come to a greater awareness of ourselves and each other.
3. Differences are normal
Before marrying my husband, when I thought about the differences I should expect in marriage, I believed only some couples would disagree over some trivial things, but, for the most part, married couples tackle the world generally united and in agreement. Life experience, practice in the counseling room and research have all proven that I was greatly mistaken. Researchers John Gottman and Robert Levenson also found that about 66% of relational conflict is unresolvable, continuing problems (Benson, 2017). What leads a couple to stand the test of time isn’t about whether or not they disagree on things, but rather, how they managed their handling of and communication about those disagreements.
A good number of the couples I see come in because a difference of opinion has created a wedge in their marriage. Couples long for their spouses to have the same opinion: If only he would just realize we can’t spend our money like this, we would be happy; If she would just spend less time doing X or Y, we would be closer. Couples often expect that the solution to their dilemma is to form the same opinions or agree on all issues. This belief is usually false and the couples answer lies in learning how to show understanding and curiosity when exploring their spouse’s side of things.
4. It’s not always about what issue is talked about but how an issue is talked about.
Oftentimes I see spouses who hope that counseling will lead their partner to see the world from their point of view. As I mentioned above, this usually isn’t realistic because people are just different; different childhood households, life experiences, personality makeup—a million things make us who we are, and we are never perfectly alike with anyone. But whether a couple is arguing about who is going to do the dishes or whether they’re arguing about sex and finances, the way things are discussed is usually more important in determining the couple’s health than the specific item under discussion. Damage often occurs when our attitudes, tones of voice, and non-verbal communication send indirect messages that bring up strong emotions in our partner. This fact can make a conversation turn into something about much more than the surface issue at hand. In this way, innocent-seeming conversations can become like icebergs lurking in the ocean of our relationships—seeming small from the surface but laden with baggage, pain, fear, and all kinds of other emotion.
An approach to counseling that sheds light on this phenomenon is Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT), which sees the need for “emotional contact and responsiveness from significant others” as the core of the marital bond (Johnson, 2009). This bond can best be illustrated by picturing the connection between a mother and her child who longs for security, closeness, and affection from the mother. The truth is that we never really grow out of the longing for a secure attachment bond; we simply seek these bonds in different avenues as adults. At the heart of the couple’s bond is the questions, “Can I reach you?”, “Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally?”, “Do I know you will value me and stay close?” (Johnson, 2008). When this bond is threatened (whether in reality or solely by perception) the fight or flight part of the brain is activated and perceives the potential loss of connection and security as dangerous and scary. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, claims that these moments when the bond is threatened are crucial. If there isn’t an intentional reconnection, couples can fall into “demon dialogues,” patterns of communication that perpetuate disconnection. One example of this kind of negative handling is called “Find the Bad Guy,” where both partners focus energy on finding out who is to blame rather than finding ways to reconnect (Johnson, 2008). If these demon dialogues continue to grow, they eventually lead to more disconnection and emotional aloneness in a relationship. Becoming aware of these dialogical patterns—in ourselves as well as in our partners—is the first step to stopping their power.
If you want to learn more about John Gottman & Sue Johnson’s research of marriage check out the following resources:
Johnson, Sue. (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, p. 49-50.
 Johnson, Sue. (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, p. 65.
Kristine Johnson is a Marriage and Family Therapist Associate at Thrive Therapy LLC in Louisville Kentucky. She is originally from the small town of Kingsville, Ontario in Canada, she holds a Master of Divinity in Biblical Counseling at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She lives with her husband Mike and two cats Pancake and Waffles. More about Kristine and her private practice can be found at: www.counselingwithkristine.com