Police Psychology | Managing Differences in a Healthy Marriage
by Doug Gentz, Ph.D. – Tulsa, Oklahoma
All marriages start, and in some cases, end in court houses. This is because the state ofﬁcially recognizes marriage as a legal business partnership. The partners in a marriage, just like in any other formal business partnership, share liabilities, assets, and authority in decision making. Partners need to get along with each other in the process of managing day to day operating challenges and in accomplishing their long term goals.
Even if you could marry your clone, you would still have differences. All partners in a marriage have differences which often create conﬂict. Sometimes couples can eliminate a difference if one person agrees to make a change that resolves the disparity; although the longer you’re together, the less frequently this will probably happen. For the most part you will have a lot more success in changing yourself than changing your partner. The sooner you accept that, the better.
One of the best strategies for managing differences is to unilaterally develop the willingness and the ability to construct and deliver “well-formed complaints” as opposed to engaging in criticism and contempt. Since you will have differences, many of which will be perpetual, how you conduct your conﬂicts becomes very consequential.
Well formed complaints are composed of statements describing the emotions you have about (not because of) something your spouse does (“I get mad when you’re late without calling”). You own the emotion – it’s about (not because of) a behavior done by your partner.
Criticisms blame your partner for your feelings (“you pissed me off when you were late again without calling”). This makes you a victim and your spouse a perpetrator (since he or she “caused” your unpleasant emotion). This can lead to endless “right / wrong” arguments in what might be thought of as occurring in an imaginary courtroom. Even if the closing arguments are exceptionally logical and compellingly persuasive, there is actually no judge or jury on site to render a verdict.
While providing plenty of criticisms will slowly erode your relationship, research by John Gottman, Ph.D. shows that spewing out contempt in the context of a conﬂict has a 95% chance of killing your marriage within ﬁve years. Contempt denigrates your spouse”s character (“only an inconsiderate jerk wouldn’t bother to call when he knows he’s going to be late”). So, give your greatest effort to resisting any temptation to engage in name calling, nasty sarcasm (including non-verbal sarcasm like eye rolls), or any other behavior that communicates disrespect or demeans the character of your partner.
As an alternative to criticism and contempt, decide to learn how to construct and deliver “well-formed complaints.” The formula is simple: “When you [insert an observable behavior], I felt [insert an emotion.]” The punctuation is important. There’s a comma after the [behavior] not an “it made me feel.” There’s a period after the [emotion] that implies an “effective pause” rather than an immediate request for a change.
You can change it up by saying “I felt [emotion] when you did or said [behavior].” The emotion is still about, not because of, the behavior. Make a report, not a case — act like a cop, not a lawyer.
The caveat: “Well Formed Complaints” are as difficult to construct as a simple algebra problem is to solve. So, your heart rate probably needs to be below 100 beats per minute – your parasympathetic system should be dominant. If not, the best choice is to take a time out and calm down.
Site Editor: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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