Dwayne and Karen came to me for counseling because they had an emotional marriage crisis.
“Here we go again,” Dwayne* muttered as Karen, his wife of 12 years, began to speak. Before she had time to finish, he asked, “Why is every little thing such a big deal with you? First crumbs in the microwave, then blowing leaves off the sidewalks and now lightbulbs? Really?”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Karen slump her shoulders and tighten her mouth as the two turned away from each other. Again.
To allow the tension to escalate a bit, I sat in silence for a full minute. Then I asked her, “What does that feel like, to be cut short before you have a chance to form a sentence?”
“It feels like an iron door slamming shut on my heart, an emotional death sentence, an execution for our marriage.”
Seek to understand your spouse’s behavior during a marriage crisis
In my clinical training, I learned that all behavior makes sense when clients discover the context behind it.
I explained that the exchange between Dwayne and Karen compares to a flood, washing away the bridge that once connected the couple. When marriage partners drift apart in isolation, emotional flooding washes over each spouse and keeps them from experiencing emotional well-being. The flooding causes a marriage crisis.
Renowned researchers and psychologists Drs. John and Julie Gottman and Dr. Sue Johnson agree that emotional flooding is the primary cause of relationship distress. The conflict spins into a perpetual cycle of emotional death. These experts say the concept of flooding creates a state of terror, isolating spouses during their greatest need.
Husbands and wives need to feel secure with the one person they allow close enough to do the greatest good or the deepest harm — their spouse. We call it attachment, connection or turning toward. We gain strength when we unify in Christ and offer kindness with humility (Philippians 2:1-8), often when people least deserve it (Colossians 3:13-14).
Dr. Johnson identifies three basic elements in a secure marital bond: accessibility, responsiveness and engagement. When these three pieces are not firmly in place, a couple’s foundation can be washed away.1
Identify why you or your spouse self-protects
The cause of the flood is always the same. The details may differ, but the underlying cause is identical.
God built a fully functioning set of pain avoidance skills into each of us. When threatened, we close in rather than turn to our Lord to rescue us from the storms in and around us. We tell our spouses things we don’t really believe for a number of reasons: keeping the peace, running from an argument, lying to resist responsibility for our actions, making ourselves feel good by making the other feel good or being lazy emotionally and intellectually. But when we sense emotional danger and we get close to exposing our deepest fears, we turn to self-protection. We curl up like a hedgehog, pointy spines outward.
What can we do to stem the rising waters? Move toward the source of perceived emotional destruction. Couples must learn to hold one another closer when all instincts scream otherwise. Dr. Johnson’s remedy includes answering the foundational question: “Are you going to be there for me when I need you most?”2
Dr. Gottman’s methods point out a number of factors that indicate flooding. If couples can learn to monitor their signs of stress (heart rate, mental loops, quickened breathing), they can avoid the riptides that pull them toward divorce.
Get curious about your spouse’s feelings
First, when couples deal with marriage conflicts, each spouse should develop a strong sense of curiosity (versus caution) about their spouse’s thoughts, feelings and underlying message.3 The Gottman Institute calls this approach a “softened start up,” whereby the aggrieved or agitated partner approaches the spouse with concern wrapped in curiosity, rather than running toward them with an open pair of scissors, ready to cut any resistance or denial into ribbons.
Make attempts to show grace and stay connected even during a marriage crisis
Next, extend grace. When a wife shows grace to her triggered husband, his urge to roll up like a hedgehog and protect himself lessens. Instead of striking back, he will move toward reconciliation, working to untangle the mess and repair any damage.
The Gottman Institute describes these efforts as “repair attempts” or “bids for connection.” Examples of these include using gentle humor, observing something positive in the midst of heightened arousal, moving closer to the partner or using a soft and open tone to de-escalate tension.
Don’t use these repair attempts as ways to distract, dismiss or cajole the hurting party from what he or she is working through. Be patient and make an effort to reconnect and accept before your spouse feels rebuffed, blamed, abandoned or lonely from a lack of understanding.
Take a timeout in the midst of marriage crises
Third, if the discussion gets heated and tensions continue to rise, The Gottman Institute suggests a timeout for an agreed upon timeframe. That gives both parties a chance to regain a sense of calm, consider their feelings and ponder their spouse’s experience. Try taking a walk, drinking some water or tea, listening to calm music, breathing slowly and monitoring your heart rate. Rates above 100 beats per minute indicate a high level of stress hormones in the bloodstream. This state can lead to a readiness to break out the boxing gloves or run a 30-yard dash across the lawn.
Timeouts decrease agitation, as long as you agree and honor the time. Letting conflicts stagnate only delays and exacerbates conflict. As a result, both marriage partners feel abandoned or attacked yet again — and “nothing ever changes.”
Drain the floodplain
Last, after a timeout, a couple can continue their discussion. This allows them clear minds and a willingness to listen to their spouse’s emotional experience. Both sides enter the conversation open to the pain, intentions and parts they each played in resolving or not resolving the conflict. Sometimes conflicts languish unresolved, but the distance between the partners can diminish with a sense of partnership and intentional reminders of why each chose the other.
When marriage partners are in a crisis and would rather push away or blame the other, Dr. Gottman4 suggests they look for common ground. If neither side can bend, he recommends they find a place along the compromise continuum. This helps them move in each other’s direction. They must choose to find even a small olive branch and focus on some small piece of ground not drenched in emotional overflow.
Find common ground
The waters of overwhelming conflict recede when couples ask clarifying questions, find common ground and collaborate together. For example, here’s what Dwayne said to Karen in my office:
“When I said I would change the lightbulb but put it off, I lost your trust in my priorities. So, you’d like me to say, ‘I can’t get to it today’ and make a commitment to get it done and follow through. Putting you off day after day for all these years eroded your trust in my affection. A little thing to me is not little to you. It’s part of a larger message in which my follow-through confirms my love. It shows that you can trust me to listen and respond. Am I right?” Yes, he was right.
When a marriage partner hears her concerns restated in respectful terms and is convinced that her emotions are held in a safe place, she will collapse the walls she has erected between her and her husband and put that energy into protecting the marriage. Consequently, these new walls of commitment and honor mimic the walls God puts around us to hold us within His grace (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).
It’s in our DNA — needing to feel cherished and to belong unconditionally. We don’t achieve that sacrificial love without God’s help. We are His work in progress. We must strive to view our husband or wife in the same light as our Creator does. Then we can see His fingerprints all over the person to whom we said, “I do.”
*Names have been changed.
1 Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013) 219.
3 Ibid., 233.
4 John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 182-184.