NEGATIVITY AND MARRIAGE
Mln. Muaadth Allie
“You can think of the 5 to 1 ratio as akin to the PH of soil, the balance between acidity and alkalinity that is crucial to fertility. Your marriage needs much more positivity than negativity to nourish your love. Without it, your relationship is in danger of withering and dying, just like a fragile vine that is planted in soil that is too acidic, too sandy or too dry. In that 5 to 1 ratio, positivity acts as a nutrient, nurturing the affection and joy that are crucial if your love is the weather the rough spots.” [John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, pp. 57-8]
The most destructive element a marriage can have is contempt between the marital partners. In a happy and stable marriage – regardless of marital style – the 5 to 1 ratio is bolstered by the positive effects of love [mawaddah] and compassion [raḥmah].
It is unmistakable in their daily interactions in the many gestures, eye contact and facial expressions they have with and show one another. They are also very interested in the details of the other’s life and are unashamedly proud of his/her achievements to the degree that it is almost seen as their own. Even when conflict rears its head, they continue to appreciate the view of the other without necessarily agreeing with it. This is the love part of the equation.
As for the compassion part, the successful are regular in their expressions of sympathy and empathy for their spouses. When the one is afflicted with illness, the other is ready with the required care and support.
They are to one another necessary sanctuaries against the harms and negative effects of the world. One regularly hears them saying things like: “I’m sorry to hear that you were caught in the rain this morning,” or, “I support and believe in you even if your siblings don’t,” or, “Its ok together we’ll get over this.”
Still a good marriage is not without its negativity. In fact “certain kinds of negativity may actually have positive function in marriages.” [Ibid, p. 64] Many would think that marriages would be better if there were no arguments and no negativity but research indicates to the opposite.
While initially marriages without disagreement appear more satisfying, three years down the line those who were more confrontational actually created more stable and satisfying marriages. It suggests that happy longevity requires that couples air their differences and somehow resolve them regardless of the marital style that they prefer. “Rather than being destructive, occasional anger can be a resource that helps the marriage improve over time.” [Ibid, p. 66]
Some – like John Gottman – look upon marriage as a type of ecosystem that must be kept in balance by occasional negativity as how an animal species is kept in check by a predator. If there are too many predators, the population of the prey dwindle dangerously to the verge of extinction and if no predators exist, the population becomes too large thereby exhausting all the available natural resources, again putting the species at risk of extinction.
In marriage too much negativity dooms the marriage while too little leaves one unprepared for the inevitable serious problem. Some conflict it appears is required to weed out actions and ways of dealing that threaten the marriage in the long run. As such even avoidant couples disagree and resolve their disagreements, just in an avoidant way.
It is important to remember however that not only the amount but also the type of conflict can be harmful to the marriage. As such when criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling become regular features in a marriage its existence is threatened.
A complaint is a specific statement of anger, displeasure, distress or negativity. Criticism however involves attacking someone’s personality or character – rather than a specific behaviour – usually with blame.
Usually it starts out as complaint but develops over time into criticism when the aggrieved party starts to believe that complaining has been ineffective in producing the desired result. While complaining is healthy and beneficial to marriages since it is in essence necessary feedback indicating the way forward for marital improvement, criticism is harmful and in certain cases fatal to marriages.
The difference between the two is that criticism involves blaming, making a personal attack or an accusation, while a complaint is merely a negative commend about something you wish were otherwise.
Also generally, complaints begin with the word “I” while criticism begins with the word “you.” An example of the first would be: “I needed it to have been done by now,” and of the second is “You are not someone I can depend upon when needed.”
A common type of criticism known as “kitchen sinking” is to bring up a long list of complaints. It is considered criticism even if when in the blaming form because it is pervasive and overwhelming. “I shouldn’t have come. I never enjoy myself with you. I don’t know why I even bother.”
Another form of criticism involves accusing your partner of betraying you and being untrustworthy. An example would be: “I trusted you to have bought it by now. You are so inconsiderate!” Criticisms tend to also be generalisations with phrases such as “you never” or “you always.”
A good way to complain is to mention the displeasing action or inaction of your partner followed by how it made you feel. An example would be “When you come home late at night without telling me where you’ve gone, I feel that you don’t value me or my feelings. This is because I worry whether something bad has happened which has caused your tardiness.”
Frequently criticism eventually develops into contempt. The difference between the two is that the latter involves the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner. This is done not only via words but also via body language and action. As it essentially involves a decay of admiration it quickly swamps the positive aspects of the relationship and destabilises the marriage.
The most common signs of contempt are:
- Insults and name-calling
- Hostile humour
- Body language
Contempt in turn gives rise to defensiveness. When attack is perceived it is natural to become defensive and protect oneself from hurt. Unfortunately defensiveness only escalates issues and even when you feel entirely vindicated, you have become part of the problem and not the solution. One of the reasons for this is that one is actually playing the innocent party and shifting the blame squarely unto the other.
This position is untenable when the aim is to resolve issues especially when it becomes the preferred response to even mere complaints. As such the major problem with defensiveness is that it obstructs communication. Rather than understanding the perspective of your partner valuable time is spent defending yourself.
Signs of defensiveness include:
- Denying responsibility
- Making excuses
- Disagreeing with negative mind-reading
- Rubber Man/Rubber Woman
- Repeating yourself
- Body language
When the marriage sinks to the level of stonewalling it goes from being damaged by poor communication to being destroyed by no communication. Once partners stop listening to one another it becomes near impossible to effect much needed repairs to the relationship.
In a normal conversation the listener exhibits certain responses – whether words or gestures – to show that he/she is keeping track of the conversation. When stonewalling, these responses are abandoned in favour of stony silence.
Stonewallers often claim that they are trying to avoid escalating matters but when the stonewaller is a man – which is the case 85% of the time – the heart rates of their wives dramatically increases. Conversely most men do not suffer any negative effects when stonewalled.
There are varying degrees of stonewalling:
- Some reduce their responses to monosyllabic mutterings or change the subject
- Others show no reaction at all
- Still others move away to another location