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Communication

The key to building trust and working through conflict

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BETTER TOGETHER Inventory

Whether you are engaged or married, the BETTER TOGETHER Inventory will strengthen your connection with each other by highlighting the areas where you are thriving as a couple, as well as the areas that show some room for improvement. It’s an incredible way to grow together! Take the marriage prep or enrichment questionnaire today.

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What if there were four things that would make or break your marriage? Four things that, if you got them right, were likely to put you on a path to a lifelong, life-giving marriage. Four things that, if you got them wrong, were likely to put you on a path to pain and heartache. Would you want to know what they were?

The first category in the BETTER TOGETHER Marriage Inventory is The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This category was developed by a leading researcher—and sort of a marriage guru—by the name of Dr. John Gottman. It takes a look at four patterns of interaction that make an incredible difference in the health of a marriage. These are the kinds of things that are helpful if you “fake it till you make it.” One technique I’ll even use with couples is called “Act as if,” where a couple will act as if they feel the way they know they want to feel. If you get these four horsemen right, you’re in great shape, but getting them wrong can lead to disaster.

So, let’s break down each of the four horsemen. The first is called criticism.

If you tell your spouse, “You never help clean the kitchen!”, you’re relying on blaming and finger-pointing to communicate—which often leads to hurt feelings and defensiveness. But there is a better way.

What if you said, “It’s really hard for me to keep up with all the work to get our house in order, and I could really use your help cleaning up the kitchen.” Now, instead of finger-pointing, you’re beginning with an expression of vulnerability, starting with your own needs and how they fit into your shared goals. You’re giving your spouse a chance to really hear you without feeling attacked and to respond out of loving care. Now the whole conversation is about fulfilling each other’s needs. I think it’s obvious which way of speaking is going to lead to a healthier marriage.

The second horseman is contempt.

You’re going to face difficult emotions and difficult times in your marriage. That’s just life. How you respond to those times can make or break a marriage.

Contempt is a form of personal attack as a way of dealing with difficult emotions and difficult times with bitterness or resentment. If you communicate with scowls, sarcasm, or even cynicism in these times, you’re showing contempt for your spouse.

Now, the absolute cure of contempt is respect. You simply can’t show contempt and be respectful at the same time. When you hold your tongue, refrain from that biting remark, and continue to assume the best about your spouse, you are showing a respect that helps endure and even thrive in the face of difficult times in your marriage.

The third horseman is defensiveness.

Defensiveness might be the simplest to understand, but the hardest to resist, of all the four horsemen.

You already know what defensiveness is: “It’s not my fault! You’re to blame!”

The solution’s tough, but if you really want your marriage to thrive, you have to be ready to look for any and every part of the difficulty that you might be responsible for, and you have to own that part. Even if it’s just 5% of the problem, when you own that and accept it, it opens the door with your spouse that defensiveness would otherwise slam shut.

The fourth horseman is stonewalling.

“I give up,” “I just can’t do this anymore.” That’s the sign of the fourth horseman. When the stress and tension of the relationship becomes so great that you just can’t fight anymore, you end up at stonewalling.

It’s sad, but it’s understandable. If you’ve got the first three horsemen, you’re likely to fall into the fourth. Emotionally shutting down is the last-ditch effort to protect yourself from a perceived threat.

But your marriage is worth fighting for. Your relationship is worth it. Taking a break—whether that means 5 minutes or even 5 hours—can make a world of difference. It’s going to be really hard to work towards a positive and productive resolution to conflict if you’re stressed and tense. So let the emotion pass, and then work together towards a healthier marriage.

We want you to have an incredible marriage. A marriage everyone else dreams of. By assessing these four areas, you’ll see the positive behaviors you’re already strong in, and the areas where you can improve. But remember, even if you have to fake it till you make it again, the right disposition in these four areas will lead to a great marriage.

Do you expect the best of your spouse . . . or the worst? Do you think highly of their intentions . . . or assume ulterior motives?

This is the kind of question we are addressing with the next category in the inventory: positive and negative sentiment override.

Let’s say your spouse says, “You look really nice today.”

Basically, one of two things can happen.

Either you bask in the complement and the knowledge that your spouse notices you and cares about you. Or you could think, “What, did I not look nice yesterday?” One of these is positive, and one is negative . . . I’ll bet you can tell which is which.

Sentiment here has to do with the overall atmosphere of the relationship. And a negative sentiment override means that even a neutral statement, like “You look nice today,” is interpreted as a negative idea.

But a positive sentiment override can turn a neutral or even a possibly critical statement into a positive one. So, “Hey, I don’t really think that shirt works for you,” becomes, “Thanks for helping me look better,” or “My spouse knows that I care about looking nice and loves me enough to notice and care about that, too.”

When I work with couples that are experiencing a negative sentiment override, typically there are deeper areas of conflict that need to be worked out. But in the meantime, I encourage them to try this: I’ll ask them to pay close attention to the way they speak to each other throughout the day and work towards a 10:1 ratio between their positive and negative statements.

This knowledge is a powerful tool to explain where miscommunication and misinterpretations are coming from. With that knowledge, you can move forward assuming the best about your spouse and their intentions.

What is intimacy?

Well first, let’s address what intimacy is not.

Intimacy is not sex. It’s not pleasure. Sex can be a part of intimacy, but sex doesn’t guarantee intimacy, nor is intimacy even required for sex. Much of the secular worldview, when it comes to intimacy, simply misses the mark.

The next category of the inventory deals with true intimacy.

Think about what you say at the altar at your wedding. You make a promise to your spouse. You promise to give yourself to them . . . in the good and the bad; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health. To love and honor your husband or your wife all the days of your life.

You give yourself fully to your spouse. That’s true intimacy.

It’s easy to give and receive all the good things about one another, but that’s not everything. You’re giving them everything:your past, your expectations, your tensions, your challenges, your fears. And you are receiving everything from your spouse:their past, their expectations, their tensions, their challenges, and their fears.

True intimacy—this entire gift of self—it’s the foundation on which everything else in marriage is built. If you don’t have this, you don’t have much. Nothing else in your marriage will make sense without it.

Marriage is hard work. That’s just reality, and couples with really thriving marriages aren’t surprised when it’s hard work. And they know that marriage is also the best kind of hard work because you get to do it with your best friend.

In the next category of the inventory, we touch on some of the practical issues that typically come up in marriage.

How do you work through your financial concerns? How do you think about money? How do you approach planning your family? What kind of parent are you, or do you want to be? What will it feel like to be married? Do you think about the commitments of being a great husband or a great wife? How do you handle the complete and radical life change that happens when you get married?

If you want to have a thriving marriage, you have to be ready to have some really intimate—and sometimes challenging—conversations with your spouse around these areas. Start with your dreams. For every topic, ask yourself, “What do I dream about in this area?” or, “If nothing got in the way, what would a perfect outcome look like?” When you have a basic understanding of your own desires, you have something to start communicating about. Then, you have to make a decision to care about and genuinely invest in your spouse’s dreams. The goal of this category is to help start those conversations in a really healthy and positive way.

Imagine driving with your spouse from Portland, Maine, to San Diego, California. You’d travel more than 3,000 miles across fifteen states. You’d be driving for 46 hours. That’s about 750 songs, at least twelve meals, and probably around 30 pit stops.

Do you think you and your spouse would still be friends when you get to San Diego?

If so, I’d like to think that you’re probably in a relationship that will last the long haul in marriage.

The next category we cover in the inventory is personality.

Friendship is an essential ingredient to happily ever after. Compatibility really relies on some very simple questions.

On the surface level, do you really want to spend time with this person? But it goes much deeper than that.

What about your in-laws? These people are going to be with you for a very long time and have a huge impact on your life.

What are your lifestyle expectations? It might not seem like a big deal now, but if one of you has always dreamed of living on a farm in the country, and the other wants to live in a flat in the heart of a buzzing metropolis, there’s something that needs to be talked about and understood.

Seeing where you align and where you differ makes for some incredible conversations and lets you know where your relationship will be really strong, and also where you might have some work ahead of you.

Alcoholism . . . drug abuse . . . pornography addictions . . . sexual abuse . . . uncontrollable anger . . . trauma . . .

These are the things we don’t often speak about, but they are a very real part of life and will have a huge impact on your marriage.

In this category of the inventory we look at personal problems and concerns, and this section can really raise some red flags that call for serious discussion, or even the need for professional help.

The inventory will identify existing personal problems like alcohol or drug abuse, other forms of addiction like pornography addiction, or any way someone might feel unsafe in a relationship.

But it will also dig into past history concerns—anything hurtful or traumatic from childhood and growing up, to past relationships.

Lastly, this category looks at emotional regulation, because no matter how many techniques and skills you learn for healthy communication and relationships, an absolute prerequisite is your ability to control your own emotion. Do you feel emotionally out of control sometimes? Ask your spouse what it’s like for them when you lose control of your emotions. Discuss times that you feel like you’re losing control. Have you learned ways to cope with these intense emotions? Are you aware of what stops you from using techniques to control them? It is important to open up an atmosphere of safety here. So this isn’t the kind of conversation that happens during a big fight. Instead, file away the need for this conversation and approach it again when feelings have calmed down.

It’s not easy, but these things need to be addressed, and through this section of the inventory you will go to a deeper level so that you can have the best relationship possible. It’s never too early or too late to seek professional help with anything in your marriage, especially some of these tougher issues.

Do you want your spouse to be truly happy? What about your children? Do you want them to be happy? Do you want your spouse or children to be resilient in the face of difficulties? Do you want them to flourish?

An overwhelming amount of data has been pouring in over the past decade analyzing human happiness, and psychologists agree: spirituality is a key ingredient to human flourishing and happiness.

This next category covered in the inventory is religion and spirituality.

Sure, the old cliché says, “Couples that pray together, stay together.” And yes, the data actually backs that up, but it also tells us much more:

An awareness of a higher power—a being who is in control when you are not, to help you feel safe and grounded—it makes you happier. Even the military has poured money into this research, because the data shows it makes you more resilient and able to weather the difficulties of life. Everything from a simple conflict to the most extreme challenges.

Bottom line: it helps you thrive.

And sharing that faith—not just expressing it, but truly sharing it—has an overwhelmingly positive impact on a marriage and family. You will have a huge impact on your spouse’s spirituality, and that spirituality will have a huge impact on the lives of your children.

Get on the same page spiritually. Knowing where your spouse is at is a great place to start, and don’t forget to continue this conversation throughout your marriage. It just might be the one thing that makes all the difference for you and your children.

A tree with strong roots can weather any storm. And the strongest root of every lasting marriage is good communication.

When the storms of life come—and I mean when, not if—communication that can repair conflict will make all the difference. That’s where this last category of the inventory goes.

We’re basically looking at three things when it comes to communication:

Healthy skills of self-expression.

Skills for effective empathy.

And how to resolve conflict.

For example, when we look at effective and empathetic listening, everyone knows that you shouldn’t talk over someone. But some people, even though they have learned not to interrupt or talk over their spouse, end up thinking over their spouse. Instead of listening, they’re just planning their next counterpoint, or thinking, “You’re wrong.”

Healthy and empathetic listening means you are considering the other person while they’re talking: putting on their shoes and thinking about their thoughts and feelings.

These are the kinds of skills that this last category addresses.

The truth is, there will always be conflict. But by looking at these areas, a couple can be better tuned into their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to repairing conflict . . . and that’s much more important than hoping it won’t happen.