Every marriage relationship develops patterns of interaction. Some patterns help marriages grow. Some can kill marriage. An analysis of 74 separate studies that included over 14,000 people discovered one pattern that can kill our marriages! This negative relationship pattern lowers relationship satisfaction, decreases intimacy, and contributes to poorer communication. It is often lovingly referred to as the demand-withdraw pattern. In this pattern one partner makes criticisms, complaints, and requests while the other withdraws and gives the silent treatment (The Most Toxic Relationship Pattern). Knowing this pattern can destroy your marriage is a start. Learning what you can do to replace it is even better. That’s the real solution. Here are a couple of ideas.
Instead of criticizing, use what Gottman calls a “gentle startup.” Rather than verbally attacking your partner’s personality, stick to describing the situation causing the stress. Find a way to explain the positive need inherent in your complaint rather than “harping” on what your partner’s doing wrong. Coming up with a positive need opens the door to discovering a solution and building intimacy.
Rather than creating an environment of abuse in which you insult your partner or show contempt for your partner, create an environment of appreciation. Maintain your awareness of your partner’s positive qualities. Speak words of affirmation and adoration to your partner every day.
Rather than making excessive demands and requests on your partner, practice serving one another. Build a culture of service, a culture in which both partners serve one another.
It’s easy to begin taking a “tit-for-tat” position when you feel like your partner blames you for something. Our first instinct is often to return blame for blame, attack for attack. Rather than do so, take responsibility for your own mistakes. Own up to your shortcomings. Admit your wrongdoings and seek forgiveness for your mistakes.
Rather than shutting down, practice calming yourself and your partner. Don’t push buttons. Breath. Take a break. Distract yourself. Then, after you have soothed yourself, return to #2 and tell your partner what you love about them.
The demand-withdraw pattern could destroy your marriage. But you can end it. You can replace it with something better by beginning to practice the 5 actions above. Why not start today!
“Doctor doctor, give me the news I got a bad case of loving you. No pill’s gonna cure my ill I got a bad case of loving you.” Robert Palmer sang those lyrics in 1979 (Moon Martin in 1978). But, many couples today need to see “Doctor Doctor” to get a script that will remedy a major “ill” destroying their marriage. The symptoms of this major “ill” include:
Constant nagging and criticism
Refusal to respond to nagging because it “drives me crazy”
The perception that my spouse “never listens to me”
Anger that chores are left undone
Feeling unappreciated and devalued
If that sounds familiar, I have a two-part prescription for you.
Each morning write down one thing about your spouse for which you are thankful. It may be a character trait you have always admired, an accomplishment they recently achieved, or a simple chore they completed. Write it down in a small notebook. Keep this notebook for the next 30 days, writing some word of thanks about your spouse every day.
Every day, verbally thank your spouse for at least one thing. It may feel awkward, but do it anyway.
That’s it. Take this prescription home and take it for the fully allotted time period. Like medicine, it does no good if you stop before you finish the bottle. Carry this prescription out for the full 30 days. Take this medication (writing some word of thanks about your spouse and verbally thank your spouse) every day—good days and bad, when you are irritated with your spouse and when you are happy with your spouse. Some days will be harder than others, but write some word of thanks every day, tell them thanks for something every day. At the end of 30 days, let me know if your marriage seems more alive and if your spouse more responsive. Maybe you’ll be singing along with Robert Palmer: “Doctor Doctor, give me the news I got a bad case of loving you. No pill’s gonna cure my ill I got a bad case of loving you!”
Let’s face it. No matter how much you love your spouse, he will drive you crazy. At other times, she will do things that frustrate you. Somehow these moments need to be addressed in order to maintain a healthy marriage. If not addressed, these frustrations will erode your marriage. People in healthy marriages address these frustrations and concerns with complaints, not criticism. It’s true. They complain. They do not criticize. There’s a big difference. A complaint addresses a specific unmet need. It identifies a specific action or statement that irritates you and leaves the need to feel loved and connected unmet. A criticism, on the other hand, attacks character. It makes a global statement about the other person’s shortcomings, demeaning or belittling them. When a discussion begins with a criticism, it is sure to end poorly. The one criticized is tempted to rise up in defense, which perpetuates a cycle of decline and disconnection unless repairs are made. So, if you want a healthy, happy marriage, state your concerns as complaints, not criticisms. Here is a format for offering a complaint rather than a criticism.
Realize that your frustration or irritation speaks more about you than anyone else. Other people may see the same action and not be bothered. They may simply let it “roll off their backs.” The fact that it bothers you reveals that you have a specific need. You want to get help with this specific need, not attack your spouse.
With a calm voice, state your observation of a specific action or behavior that creates a need. “When I came home from work the last two days, dishes were piled up in the sink.”
State the impact this behavior has on you, but do so without placing blame. The impact will identify your emotions in response to this behavior and a need created by this behavior. “I get really frustrated when I’m tired and see all those dishes. I think about how much I have to do and I get angry.”
Offer a positive way your spouse could help meet your need. “If we could all put our dishes in the dishwasher when we use them it would really help me feel better.”
Ask for your spouse’s input about other ways you could work together to meet the need. “Would you be willing to do that or do you have another idea for how we could work together to keep the sink clear?”
Remember, you are approaching this situation to get a positive need met, not to attack your spouse. When you voice a concern with a complaint rather than a criticism, you are limiting the chance of a defensive response and increasing the chance of getting your need met. You also open the door to work together. You increase intimacy and trust in your marriage. So, when problems arise in your marriage, don’t criticize. Complain instead.
Our children taught us an important lesson when they were mere toddlers. It’s true. I remember the lesson clearly. They told us by their actions and words: “We are not your puppets. You cannot control us.” They remind us of this fact every time we offer to help them and they say “No, I do” in their broken toddler English…or, when we tell them not to do something and they smile at us before doing it anyway. Children are not our puppets. They will not allow us to control them.
Most parents still try to exert some level of control over their children. For instance:
We fear for our children’s safety so we control their actions with rigid rules and expectations.
In an effort to protect our children from emotional pain and hurt, we hover over their lives and become involved in every activity and stick our nose in all their drama trying to control every outcome.
In anger at their disobedience or “attitude” we step back, distancing ourselves and withholding love at a time when they likely need to know our love is unconditional and never ending.
We may even try to change them by inducing guilt with statements like “Your mother would be so disappointed’ or “after all I’ve done for you….”
I’m sure you recognize some of these actions in yourself. I know I do. We attempt to control our children out of fear. Nonetheless, our children are not our puppets. They will not be controlled. Like Pinocchio, they do not want to be puppets. They want to be “real” boys and girls.
In all reality, our children are right. We hurt our children when we control them. Research suggests:
Controlling our children crushes their self-confidence. It leaves our children with a chronic sense of guilt, a belief that something is inherently wrong with them…that they are bad.
Children who grow up with over-controlling parents tend to be hypercritical of themselves and others. Critical of themselves, they struggle with a positive self-image. Critical of others, they can struggle with friendships.
Since over-controlling parents make every (or almost every) decision for their children, their children become dependent. They do no learn to think independently and make their own decisions. They rely on others to do their thinking for them.
Children who feel controlled may lie, sneak, or openly rebel in an effort to establish their own identity and have the opportunity to “think for themselves.”
Since over-controlled children do not learn healthy ways to assert themselves and confidently express their opinions, they have greater difficulty in relationships when they become adults as well.
Our children are right. They are not our puppets. We do them a disservice when we attempt to control them. We interfere with them developing a healthy self-image, intimate relationships, and the ability to assertively stand up for what they believe. What can a parent do to cut the puppet strings and let go of control? Read Cut the Puppet Strings to discover five actions that will do the trick!
Parents carry a huge responsibility. We are responsible for the next generation, the future of our society. The relationships we build with our children shape the world in which we will grow old. The unspoken values we pass on to our children will impact how future generations interact, resolve conflict, and share resources. The subtle ways we treat our children will determine how they view themselves and how they treat others. So, I have to ask: Are you a chipper or a sculptor? Do you carelessly chip away at your children and our future? Or, do you carefully sculpt your children in an effort to shape their inner strength and virtues?
Chippers criticize…a lot. Overly critical parents can see results of their criticism if they take an honest look. Let me describe some of the signs a chipper might see.
Criticism chips away at children’s sense of competence. Overly criticized children feel inadequate and incompetent. They feel nothing they do is good enough; and, as a result, they are not good enough. Children who receive constant criticism come to believe there is something wrong with them.
Criticism splinters parent-child relationships. Children fear criticism and, to protect themselves, will withdraw from anyone who might criticize them. If they fear a parent will criticize them, they will withdraw from that parent. They will hide any part of themselves they believe their parents will criticize. As a result, their parents cannot know them completely. They will maintain a distant and self-protective relationship. As criticized children withdraw from their parents to avoid criticism, parents also lose any opportunity to influence their children.
Criticism shatters children’s self-confidence. It replaces self-confidence with a nagging doubt about personal ability to achieve or make independent decisions. This doubt turns to fear in the face of new opportunities that carry risk (and all opportunity carries some risk). As a result, overly criticized children procrastinate. They avoid novel tasks and opportunities. They miss out.
Criticism becomes a twisted internal dialogue that fuels self-doubt and maintains an inadequate self-concept. The more criticism children receive, the smaller, more insignificant, and less capable they will believe themselves to be.
Criticism eventually batters other people and relationships. The criticism bouncing around in our children’s minds and whittling away at their own sense of competence eventually overflows to slash at other people. Criticism begets criticism and relationships are devastated.
Think about the future overly critical parents (chippers) create by criticizing their children. Chippers create a future filled with grown children who feel inadequate and incompetent. As a result, these children withdraw and engage in superficial relationships that enable them to hide the most significant and meaningful parts of themselves from others. Loneliness ensues. Self-doubt replaces the drive to grow and learn with feigned satisfaction with a tiresome status quo. Fear of failure hinders exploration, invention, and the progress that comes from sharing related discoveries. Innovation is hindered. Relationships become marked by critical banter at best and, at worst, harsh criticism and hateful remarks.
We, as parents, can help avoid this future by becoming sculptors instead of chippers. Sculptors…well, read part 2 to learn how sculptors shape their children for a better future.
Napoleon once remarked that “four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” Indeed, words are powerful. I always wondered who said that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Whoever they were, they were wrong. Words may not break bones, but they can break someone’s spirit. Of course, they can lift someone’s spirit as well. Words have the power to arouse strong emotions in us–emotions of joy or sorrow, anger or mercy, love or hate. Just adding a single word to a sentence can change the meaning and consequence of that sentence. Take “but” for example. When a loved one tells us “I love you” we are filled with joy. However, “I love you, but…” leaves us fearful and worried about the security of our relationship with them. When a friend says, “I like your shirt” we feel good, maybe even more confident. However, if they say “I like your shirt, but…” we suddenly become self-conscious and worried, not only about our shirt but our overall appearance. And, we all hate to hear someone respond to our world changing idea by saying “Yeah, but…”
Yes, words are powerful. Our words can honor or dishonor those who hear us. They can heal the spirit or crush the spirit. Honoring words build others up. Dishonoring words tear others down. “Honey, I really appreciate all your work around the house” honors; “Honey, it’s about time you did something around here” does not. Telling our children “You didn’t put your clothes away yet-when do you plan to do it” honors them. Telling them “You are such a slob; you never put your clothes away” dishonors them with name-calling and character assassination. Constructive criticism given in love honors; harsh criticism shouted in anger dishonors. Encouraging words honor. Compliments honor. Polite words, like “thank you,” “please,” or “your welcome,” honor. Rude words dishonor.
Tim Hawkins’ satirical song, “Things You Don’t Say to Your Wife,” (click on picture) humorously describes many dishonoring statements a man might say to his wife. It’s a funny song. Have a good laugh as you listen. But, when the music ends, consider…do your words honor or dishonor your family?