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Who’s At the Helm? Rules for Charting a Course Through Life

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My husband and I were avid sailors. We moved to beautiful Northern Washington to take advantage of the wonderful cruising in the San Juan Islands.

Before you begin any cruise, however, you need to have a destination in mind. That might mean just an afternoon sailing in the waters close to home. Or it might mean an extended trip up into the Vancouver Islands. Either way, you need to know the route you will take and what obstacles you might encounter.

But it’s not only having a definite route planned before you leave port, it is important to know the rules. You need to be aware of other boats out for a sail. You need to know where the shipping lanes are, what the different buoys mean, and how to chart a course. You must take into consideration prevailing winds, tides, and currents.

You also need to know the condition of your boat. What can it weather without peril? How does it perform in a storm?

Without these basics you can easily get into trouble.

Cruising through Life

It is the same with life. We need to know how to take the helm and navigate through waters of personal development, careers, family, and long-term relationships.

This requires planning a designated route, knowing where the rip tides are, understanding how to avoid submerged and dangerous rocks, and knowing how to find safe passages when the weather gets rough.

Preparation for life involves not only knowledge of the areas where we want to go, but also, preparation and knowledge of ourselves.

There were times after charting a course and setting sail, that we could activate the automatic pilot – a  self-steering apparatus that enabled us to take our hands off the wheel, allowing the automatic pilot to take over. Even so, we never left the cockpit. We continued to monitor the boat’s passage so we could take control of the helm at a moment’s notice.

Are you on automatic pilot?

While the automatic pilot could self-correct within a predetermined set path, it couldn’t anticipate the unexpected.

That is also true for us as we navigate life. We set goals, develop a course of action, and go on automatic pilot. Yet, if we have not prepared for the unexpected – knowing what to do when the weather changes, when the fog rolls in, or when the winds whip up a storm – we will not know how to take over the helm and self-correct our directions and actions.

Unless you are in danger of running aground, crashing into a barrier reef, or being run over by a ferry or large ship, correcting a course on a predetermined course usually takes only small actions. The rudder on any size boat is relatively small in relation to the size of the boat, but its steering capacity is remarkable.

If you have dealt in the past with panic and severe reactions to unexpected changes, your first response to any perceived or real danger in the present will be panic and fear.

It takes time to replace old responses with calm and thoughtful consideration.

While fear and panic can motivate us to take immediate emergency action, if you see every situation as some kind of danger, your responses will continue to become overreactive.

And when we remain stressed for long periods of time without resolution, we become a candidate for major health problems.

Make Stress Work For You by Marlene Anderson | focuswithmarlene.comFor more on this topic, see my book, Make Stress Work for You, 12 Steps to Understanding Stress and Turning it into a Positive Force

In order to change habits of overreacting, we need to first learn a new way to assess and evaluate before responding.

Related article: How to Replace Bad Habits with Beneficial Habits 

If you are experiencing unexpected problems that seem to never end, resist the impulse to automatically think how bad it is.

Instead, take a slow, deep breath and tell yourself as you evaluate the situation, “I am able to work through this, one step at a time.”

Turn from thinking the worst to focusing on the specifics of what you are facing.

This takes you out of the reactive state into becoming proactive.

Write down all aspects of the problem. Is this a minor correction to your life or will this require a whole new change of direction?

Do whatever is necessary to stabilize your position while you work on finding a long-term solution. Becoming proactive instead of having a knee-jerk reaction allows you time to think and search for a more appropriate response.

After identifying all aspects of your problem, you will be able to alter or chart a new course and put down the steps needed to make it happen.

Be sure to evaluate your progress as you go along to be sure it is accomplishing your final outcome.

Related article: Problem-Solving, Step 1: Identify the Problem and Define the Conflict

There will be times when you can run on automatic pilot. Just be prepared to take back the helm quickly and correct or change directions as needed.

Quiet Your Internal Critic and Develop Self-Esteem

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Self-esteem is the worth and respect we give ourselves that encourages and affirms our ability to make practical and beneficial decisions.

When our “inner voice” or self-talk berates everything we do and everything about who we are, we will struggle to believe in ourselves. Our fears of doing everything wrong overshadow anything we might do right.

A low esteem will be reflected in our relationships, marriage, social circles, and work, because everything is colored by that negativity. And it can breed jealousy and resentment, as well as a simmering dislike for others.

In their book, Self-Esteem, Matthew McKay, Ph.D., and Patrick Fanning, give us indications of how self-esteem is diminished. They refer to our “negative inner voice” as a pathological critic that continues to attack and judge us.

In past blog posts and in my work with people, I named this “inner voice” our Internal Critic, and suggested you give it a name and order it to sit down and be quiet unless it had something of real value to share.

Related article: That Unexpected Visitor: Your Internal Critic 

While that might seem a bit harsh or extreme, remember that if this internal critic has had free run for a long time – denouncing anything and everything you do – it has formed a habit. Habits can be replaced but they first need to be recognized and properly identified.

Giving your critic a name helps you identify when it is overly active so you can respond quickly in stopping the flow of negativity.

That does not mean that you shouldn’t stop and evaluate the pros and cons of a decision that needs to be made. You need to first assess the seriousness of a problem and then what might be the best solution.

It is important to be cautious and careful and consider all options. But an Internal Critic doesn’t give you time to evaluate pros and cons. It is negative about everything. When constantly bombarded by an internal critical voice, we aren’t able to recognize anything positive.

Related article: How to Replace Critical Self-Talk with Affirmations

How do you handle problematic situations?

What is your first reaction? Is it always critical or negative?

If it is, what can you put in place to help evaluate and become more accurate in both identifying problems and finding appropriate solutions?

When your self-esteem is low, your critic becomes more vocal and drowns anything else out.

Related Articles:

How Our Internal Critic Labels Us

Quiet Your Internal Critic and Develop Self-Esteem

Our critic will attach labels to us, such as idiot or you’ll never learn.

Labels are any descriptive words or phrases used to describe a person or group. They usually trigger an immediate response and image. Labels try to condense and explain complex behaviors and situations and in the process, identify and define someone or something. They also become buzzwords we use in most of our conversations.

So, how can I more accurately identify whether I have a destructive self-critic?

Well, an irrational critic will blame you for everything that happens. It follows its own script that consists of every fault and failure you have made. It will call you names such as stupid or incompetent, exaggerating your weaknesses while distorting or minimizing your capabilities.

Over time, this rhetoric becomes toxic and begins to control your thinking. It usually has a long history that begins early in life, comparing you to what or who you “should” be. It becomes a critic of the values and rules you were given while growing up. And at the same time, it blames everything and everybody else for all the problems you have.

Insidious, Subtle, and Dangerous

If our Internal Critic is constantly devaluing us, then why do we listen to it?

As shocking as it might seem, in some way it is rewarding. Perhaps it is reducing the stress of problem-solving. If you don’t have to make a decision then you won’t make a wrong one and anxiety is reduced.

Instead, we blame others for whatever happens as a way to cover up our fears, mistakes or bad behavior. We may not even be aware that we are doing that. Blaming others takes the pressure off of us. Remember as a kid, saying, “It’s not my fault – it’s his,” referring to a brother or sister or anybody else.

When we continue to repeat patterns of thinking or behaving, we are reinforcing it and it becomes a habit. We use it to explain everything. “Self-critical statements can be both positively and negatively reinforced.”

Your internal critic can tear you down while you are trying to make good choices and meet your basic needs. Those basic needs include a way to regulate your behavior and control dangerous impulses.

You need to have some kind of structure and order, along with rules in place that will provide an ethical (moral and immoral) framework.  When those rules are violated, life becomes more chaotic, and you lose your sense of worth. You fear rejection and your critic helps by blaming it all on others.

We also cope with rejection by first rejecting ourselves.

If I call myself a loser, nobody else can. So, we attack ourselves, which relieves our anxiety about someone else attacking us first.

Like most habits we want to alter or replace, we must first become aware of them. If you want to alter your critic’s voice, you need to become aware of what it is saying to you, when, and how often.

Then ask yourself:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What purpose does it serve when I always attack myself in some way?
  • What is my critic’s ulterior motive?
  • What am I fearful of?

Then talk back.

Tell it to stop or shut up. Replace with affirmations of worth.

Worth is not determined by your behavior. It is the value that all human beings have. You just need to increase your awareness of that value.

In 1 Corinthians 13, love is described as: patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, arrogant, or rude, or insisting on having its own way. Love is not irritable or resentful and does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in what is right. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

If we are to love others, how can we do that if we despise ourselves?

Changing Your Internal Dialog from “I Can’t” to “I Can”: Practice Positive Affirmations

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What do you say to yourself when the world drops out from under you?

When the doctor says you have cancer, or your child has become a drug addict, or when a beloved spouse, parent or grandparent is on hospice?

Every day, in some way, we are responding to the tragedies, calamities, and heartbreaks we experience. We seldom think about what we are saying to ourselves at such times and how it can impact our ability to meet those challenges.

Words have incredible power, especially when they devalue who we are, our worth, esteem and abilities. The same is true when we devalue others.

When faced with tragedies, losses, and overwhelming challenges, what we say to ourselves can keep us in a hopeless frame of mind, unable to search for answers.

We are often unaware of our ongoing internal dialogue.

What are you saying to yourself on a daily basis? Do you constantly tell yourself all the reasons why you can’t succeed, why you aren’t good enough?

If you always tell yourself, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” then you won’t.

It is normal to have doubts and question ourselves, but when it becomes a pervasive pattern of negating everything we do, it has unwanted long-term consequences.

If you find yourself consistently focusing on what you can’t do, it is time to challenge that thinking.

Who says you can’t?

If you have a list in your head of all the reasons why you can’t, make a new list of all the ways you can.

Begin by writing down all the things you have already accomplished. We tend to minimize the things we are capable of while maximizing the things we are not good at.

You may have made bad choices in the past and missed opportunities. We all do. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make better choices now. Don’t allow your fear of failing to dictate your efforts to try.

When we choose to look though the dark lens of contempt or condescension, we begin to find fault with everything and everyone. Others become inferior, undeserving of respect. By raising yourself above them, you assume an attitude of superiority while feeling inferior deep inside. We hide that for fear of rejection.

See related post: How to Replace Critical Self-Talk with Affirmations

There is a price attached to negative thinking. You become defensive and on the alert to avoid being taken advantage of. Relationships suffer. When the focus is constantly on finding fault, it is difficult to find agreement about anything – even with those you care about. We attack and defend.

If your self-talk reflects ongoing doubts about yourself, you can create all the worthwhile goals you want but you will be undermining your ability to achieve them. Your biggest obstacle will be your inability to believe in yourself.

Remove the glasses that focus only on the awful or unpleasant!

Creating positive affirmations

Communication begins with our internal dialogue – talking to ourselves. As we learn to appreciate who we are, we can move forward with hope and confidence. Making and repeating affirming statements is one useful way to begin developing that confidence.

Affirmations to consider:

  • I affirm I have choices and abilities.
  • I affirm I have worth and value.
  • I affirm that I can accomplish any goals I choose when I put my heart, mind, and effort to the task.

You might be hesitant to repeat these affirmations every day because you feel you are being dishonest since you currently don’t believe that way.

But you are in the process of changing your belief system.

Affirmations reflect the values and principles you want to live. They are re-training your brain and your thought processes from a negative point of view to one that is positive and assuring. They will motivate and encourage you.

Affirmations draw us towards something of value and set in motion the willpower to do it.

Repeated daily, they can become a new self-fulfilling prophecy. They also become a new automatic response to adversity and life in general.

Let affirmations guide you as you create new goals. As you repeat them each day, you will begin to act on them.

Here are some additional affirmations you may want to consider:

  • I am intelligent, capable, and responsible for all my actions.
  • I choose to expand my point of view and focus on what is positive in my life.
  • I can become more than any hurtful events in my past.
  • I forgive because hanging onto grievances hurts me.
  • I work for excellence instead of perfection.
  • I am methodical and careful in everything I do.
  • I focus on what I can do and not on what I can’t do.
  • I let go of the hurts of the past so I can work on my future.
  • I can say “no” and respect my decisions.

Take some time to create your own personal affirmations. Or modify the ones above to address your special concerns, needs, and wants.

How our Perceptions of the World Work For or Against Us

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How do you see the world?

How does your perception differ from others you know, including your family?

Why does it matter?

Those differences become obvious as we talk, act, and live our lives. It also influences the observations we make and the insights we get, and how we use them.

Perceptions are the personal assessments we make about the world, and they begin to form early in life, becoming more specific as we age. They influence all our relationships and how we communicate and interact with others.

We are often unaware of the perceptions we have created and how they might be working against us, sabotaging our relationships, aspirations, and goals and the ability to see things in a more positive way.

We are a combination of many things: DNA, personality, childhood experiences and the fundamental beliefs we put in place while growing up.

We form perceptions of who we think we are based on how we interpret those experiences.

Think about two kids growing up in the same household. Each can have very different perceptions of what their family is like. Simply put, it is the ability to determine life through our senses, awareness, and comprehension.

Attitudes, motivations, and expectations are also affected by perceptions. How we perceive the world shapes and forms these attitudes and mindsets, as well as the view we have of ourselves. It is affected by our personality, what interests us, and past experiences.

Remember that our perceptions are not reality.

Perceptions will influence the observations we make on a day-to-day basis. I live in the Pacific Northwest, where there are many days of gray skies. I like blue skies and sunshine. But looking at it from a different perspective, I am reminded that those gray skies and the rain that follows give us the beautiful green that I enjoy year-round.

So, I have a choice. When it is gray outdoors, I can allow myself to get into a funk or I can create comforting spaces inside my home that reflect light and color.

I may turn on a light or two.

In the spring when the gray skies seem endless, I focus on the exploding color of spring: tulips, daffodils, and flowering trees.

With thoughts and attitude challenged, I focus on what I want to accomplish, and my day is transformed.

I can do the same when challenged by negative situations.

I can choose to look at my problems in a more productive way. For example, I can choose to look beyond my first instinct to treat the grouchy neighbor in kind and instead offer him grace.

I can make a conscious choice to pray for that person I really don’t like. After all, God loves me even when I am at my worst. Maybe that difficult person needs to know and feel God’s grace as well. I find ways to set my boundaries while extending grace.

Perceptions and how we make sense of the world enable us to survive.

Without the ability to perceive, we wouldn’t recognize danger, and learn how to react to it or protect ourselves. For example, you might love dogs but when you come up to one that growls at you, you stand back even if you want to pet it because that growl is a warning they might bite.

Children growing up in an emotionally dysfunctional home learn that when their parent is scowling, it is a warning sign to not antagonize.

Perceptions we put in place can keep us alive.

However, when we perceive danger or caution in everything, we can become super-vigilant, depressed, and eventually worn out. We judge people adversely and we consider all situations as unfair. We develop biases and prejudices and we stereotype everything in a negative way. Anxiety replaces laughter or happiness. We no longer can make accurate assessments and we no longer experience joy.

So, in many ways, perception becomes the lens through which we view our reality, and it influences everything, from how we process to how we interpret things. The perceptions we put in place determine how we make assessments and then choose the best way to act.

Every day will present challenges that trigger an immediate response. If we develop the habit of responding without thinking, we can spend a lifetime feeling angry, resentful, and sometimes bitter. If we stop and consider, we can change or alter that first response to one that is both protective and accommodating or helpful.

When life seems like one problem after another, we will get depressed and strike out, or build resentments and blame others for all our difficulties and distress. Sometimes we just condemn ourselves.

However, remaining in that mindset takes away our personal power to find the solutions we need and will keep us locked in a never-ending cycle of bitterness and resentment.

Similar to changing a habit, we can alter our perceptions and replace illogical ones with logical ones.

We can learn to change our perspective and focus.

When we do, we see the wounds and pain that cause people to strike out; we see the losses that have colored their internal skies not only gray, but black; and we can appreciate the loving traits of friends and family and the people we work with.

And perhaps, when I am able to change my perspective, in the process others might view life differently.

Nurturing a Successful Marriage

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When our marriage falls apart, we feel a sense of shock. Even though we were aware things weren’t good, we somehow still believed they weren’t as bad as they are.

We ask ourselves, “What happened?”

Once trust is broken, it is difficult to rebuild, but it can be done. We wish there was some magic wand we could wave to restore those early feelings of love and contentment. But with honesty and a desire we can rebuild.

Final stages of a marriage

  1. You see your marital problems as severe
  2. Talking things over is useless. You problem-solve on your own.
  3. You start leading parallel lives
  4. Loneliness sets in

Affairs begin to happen by the fourth stage and are usually the result of a dying marriage – not the cause.

But even these marriages can be saved with the right help. The key to reviving or divorce-proofing a relationship is what you do when you are fighting. And, if you take the time to strengthen your friendship, it will also strengthen the marriage.

Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship and sense of belonging, along with mutual respect and enjoyment of each other’s company.

Marriage can be extremely complex. It takes courage, determination, and resiliency to maintain a long-lasting relationship. These couples know each other intimately. They know each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams and accept one another.

They continue to build a positive relationship by expressing their affection in little ways every day. Their friendship is maintained and becomes the foundation of their love. That friendship will fuel flames of romance.

Positive thoughts partners hold about each other will override negative feelings and will fuel optimism. As you support each other’s endeavors and personal goals, you are also supporting the goals you have as a couple.

A successful marriage is built together and requires respect for each other.

Most marital arguments are not resolved because couples spend most of their time trying to outdo each other or forcing changes. It can’t be done.

Fighting over fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality or values are not going to succeed.

When there are no attempts to repair the marriage, both partners remain on constant red alert. They expect to be in combat with each other and withdraw or disengage emotionally from the relationship and the marriage.

Bottom line: 

Learning how to live with the differences we have by respecting and honoring each other is the key to avoiding divorce.

Communication: The number one issue

Again, communication becomes a huge factor. According to a study by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML), (Dec. 22, 2019) communication problems were the number one reason for divorce in the United States.

The study stated that about 67.5 percent of all marriages failed because of a breakdown of communication.

The reasons for this breakdown included arguing, the inability to understand the other spouse, or total lack of communication. (See more here)

Talking Openly

Healthy couples take time to check in with one another on a regular basis. This means discussing deeper and more personal issues than just parenting and maintaining the household.

It doesn’t mean you avoid difficult subjects. Keeping concerns or problems to yourself breeds resentment. When discussing tough topics, though, remember to be respectful.

Researchers have found that communication style can be more important than commitment levels, personality traits, or even stressful life events in predicting whether happily married couples will go on to divorce.

In particular, negative communication patterns such as anger and contempt are linked to an increased likelihood of splitting up.

Disagreements are part of any relationship, but some fighting styles are particularly damaging. Couples who use destructive behavior during arguments — such as yelling, resorting to personal criticisms, or withdrawing from the discussion — are more likely to break up than couples who fight constructively.

Constructive strategies for resolving disagreements include attempting to find out exactly what your partner is feeling, listening to his or her point of view and trying to reduce tension with kindness and laughter when both see the humor in the situation.

Date nights

To keep that friendship going, plan regular date nights. Even dates can get old, though, if you’re always renting a movie or going to the same restaurant.

Experts recommend breaking out of the routine and trying new things — whether that’s going dancing, taking a class together, taking an afternoon ride, or going on hikes.

Sexual Intimacy

Intimacy is also a critical component of romantic relationships. Some busy couples find it helpful to schedule sex by putting it on the calendar. It may not be spontaneous to have it written in red ink, but setting aside time for an intimate encounter helps ensure that both your physical and emotional needs are met.

When should couples seek help?

While every relationship has its ups and downs, some things are more likely to create bumps in the relationship. Finances and parenting decisions often create recurring conflicts, for example.

One sign of a problem is having repeated versions of the same fight over and over. In such cases, therapy can help couples improve communication and find healthy ways to move beyond the conflict.

You don’t have to wait until a relationship shows signs of trouble before working to strengthen your union. Marriage education programs that teach skills such as good communication, effective listening and dealing with conflict have been shown to reduce the risk of divorce.

9 psychological tasks that make marriage work

Research on what makes a marriage work indicates that people in a good marriage have completed these psychological “tasks”:

  1. They have separated emotionally from the family they grew up in; not to the point of estrangement, but enough so that their identity is separate from that of their parents and siblings.
  2. They build togetherness based on a shared intimacy and identity but can still maintain personal boundaries to protect each other’s autonomy.
  3. They have established a rich and pleasurable sexual relationship and protect it from the intrusions of the workplace and family obligations.
  4. For couples with children, they embrace the daunting roles of parenthood and absorb the impact of a baby’s entrance into the marriage. They continue protecting the privacy of self and that of their spouse as a couple.
  5. They confront and master the inevitable crises of life together.
  6. They maintain the strength of the marital bond in the face of adversity. The marriage needs to be a safe haven where partners can express their differences, anger, and conflict and find some resolution.
  7. They use humor and laughter to keep things in perspective and to avoid boredom and isolation.
  8. They nurture and comfort each other, satisfy each other’s needs for dependency, and offer continuing encouragement and support.
  9. They keep alive the early romantic, idealized images of falling in love, while facing the sober realities of the changes wrought by time.

Signs that Your Marriage is in Serious Trouble

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“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

—Oscar Wilde

Note: The information presented here comes from the books, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, and A Couple’s Guide to Communication, by Dr. John Gottman.

When we get married, we believe that life will be good from now on. “I have my loved one by my side.”

And yet, while everything seems to be going smoothly, we find ourselves disagreeing more, having more passionate arguments, and spending less pleasant time together.

Life can change in what seems like the blink of an eye; we don’t have enough money in the bank to cover our credit cards, everybody keeps giving us advice we didn’t ask for, and we suddenly find ourselves working longer and longer each day, with little time to spend together in pleasant activity or just enjoying each other’s company.

We are not only arguing more, but it seems our tempers are on a short string and anger becomes more the norm than the exception. We talk about our troubles with others instead of with each other to get validation, sympathy, and support, but not resolution.

And the scene is set for more serious troubles.

Nowhere is communication more important between couples as it is during such times. Without the ability to communicate effectively about our frustrations, and what we want and need, difficulties will settle in.

Until we learn to hear the other person’s point of view, frustrations, wants and needs, there will be more and more misinterpretations and misunderstandings.

In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman lays out in a practical format seven principles for making a marriage work. The principles are based on years of research and study in his Seattle-based clinic, The Gottman Institute.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work - John M GottmanIt is a book easy to understand and follow and I recommend to anyone who is trying to develop a more “harmonious and long-lasting relationship” with their spouse. The exercises he presents, along with the information offered, are easy to follow and apply and have proven helpful.

According to Dr. Gottman, marriages can work when couples spend more time building a loving friendship than finding fault with each other. Happy marriages are based not just on friendship, but on a mutual respect and enjoyment of their spouse.

They know each other intimately – likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams – and express fondness in big and little ways every day. They find ways to stay connected and maintain that friendship.

When things go wrong in a marriage

When things go wrong, couples need to have a strategy in place to repair their relationship. Sometimes that strategy is something they say or an action, silly or otherwise, that prevents escalation of arguments and defuses ongoing arguments.

Couples need to work together to strengthen their friendship and neutralize negative circumstances. It is this marital friendship that keeps them together. To do this, however, requires couples maintain a deep sense of intimacy. They don’t just “get along,” but they support each other’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Together, they build a sense of purpose for their lives while honoring and respecting one another.

Entering the Danger Zone – Predicting Potential Divorce

Gottman indicates that a marriage will die when neither spouse recognizes the value of their marriage, and both take the marriage for granted. When couples stop nurturing one another, they soon lose respect for each other and become negative and sarcastic. They are entering a danger zone.

It is not just anger, but a simmering ongoing dislike and rage.

It is not just arguing or fighting – it is developing contempt for their partner.

Within the first 15 minutes of a therapy session, Dr. Gottman says he can predict up to 91% accuracy whether a couple will end up in a divorce. He lists six signs or indicators that divorce is on the horizon with the seventh being the ending.

First Sign: “Harsh startup”

How do couples begin their conversations? When discussions or arguments begin with negative, accusatory, sarcastic, or blaming comments, the focus is not on problems that can be worked on and resolved, but on themselves. A harsh startup relates to failure.

Second Sign: “The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse”

Gottman defines these as “criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.” The presence of the “4 horsemen” predicts divorce with 82% accuracy.

Criticisms are negative words that denigrate the character or personality of your spouse, amounting to character assassination. Complaints don’t just target behaviors, but belittle, scorn, and vilify the other.

When we are in contempt of our partner, we maintain an attitude of disgust, sarcasm and cynicism that includes name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. We consider our spouse either worthless or inferior and not worthy of respect.

Contempt is poisonous because it leads to more conflict instead of reconciliation and is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about your partner. It includes belligerence, which is a form of aggressive anger that contains a threat or provocation and becomes an extremely toxic brew when it has been allowed to ferment and develop.

When we are constantly on the defensive, we blame our partner for everything that happens. No matter what our spouse says, it is immediately construed as an attack, and we remain ready to counter-attack. There is no problem-solving or negotiation – just attack and defend.

Eventually, one partner will tune out, disengage, or turn away to avoid a fight. This is referred to as “stonewalling.” When someone is stonewalling, they will look away, up or down, and become as impassive as a “stone wall.” They will act as though they could care less.

This is more common with men. As this destructive cycle continues, individuals will refuse to cooperate, will avoid questions, and create delays. They no longer are interested in discussion, negotiation, or resolving disagreements.

Third Sign: “Flooding”

Gottman believes that people stonewall because they are flooded with emotions they do not know how to handle. Criticism, contempt, or defensiveness become so overwhelming that they leave the person shell-shocked. The more times you are flooded with criticism or contempt, the more hyper-vigilant you become. To survive and protect yourself, you disengage emotionally from the relationship.

Fourth Sign: “Body Language”

When under attack, there is an overriding physical distress: the heart rate escalates, blood pressure rises, and sweating occurs. This internal distress and stress trigger the fight/flight response, and you are unable to process information or problem-solve. You are in survival mode of either fighting or fleeing.

Fifth Sign: “Failed Repair Attempts”

We make repair attempts to decrease emotional tension and lower stress levels. Without these, we end up in a continuous feedback loop and downward spiral. This failure of repair attempts in a marriage is an accurate marker for potential divorce. When there are no attempts to repair, this prediction reaches about 91% accuracy. Repair attempts will work when there is a healthy relationship between spouses.

Sixth Sign: “Bad Memories”

When the relationship is consumed by negativity, couples rewrite their past history as well. They no longer are able to remember anything positive about their relationship and can remember little of their past.

Is there any hope?

While there may be predictive signs of a potential breakup, when two people really want to change and work together, they can do so.

Sometimes we think if we just leave and start over again our lives will be different and we will be happy. We forget, however, that we take with us the remnants of previous broken relationships and unless we work through them, we repeat previous behaviors.

If you find yourself in this situation, please seek the help of a trained counselor to help you work through the issues that keep you conflicted.

Discerning Hidden Agendas in Relationships

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“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
—Oscar Wilde

“I work hard to listen and say exactly what I mean. But it seems no matter what I do, we still end up arguing. The other person just won’t listen. When I bring up a point it is countered with another negative jab at me. I am reminded of when I did this and that and pretty soon we don’t even remember what the problem was that we were talking about. So why isn’t all this communication stuff working?”

Like any skill we gain competence in, communication needs to be practiced. But like any habit we put in place, it is easy to get discouraged and go back to old ways of doing things.

Too often we come to our conversations with a hidden agenda – a motive that isn’t always clear to us.

We don’t come to resolve problems, but to convince the other person they need to change.

We want the other person to see and hear and accept our point of view – we don’t really want to hear theirs. We want to be understood and accepted just as we are.

What is your motive in personal communication?

How do you approach conversation when there is a core difference of opinion or understanding?

Is there a secret vendetta that you don’t want to acknowledge because you want to believe you have the best interests of your friend at heart? If we were wounded, we often want the other to experience that too.

If conversations continue to break down, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is my true motive in this conversation?
  • Am I listening honestly to hear and accept the other person’s point of view?
  • Is revenge more a part of this conversation than I want to acknowledge? Is it more important than understanding?
  • Do I want a relationship? Am I willing to do the things it takes to not only develop but maintain this relationship?

Anything worthwhile in life requires work and effort. But the benefits are indescribable.

Think about a beautiful garden that you enjoy. In order for you to continue to enjoy your garden, you must diligently pull the weeds, trim the bushes, and keep the soil moist and porous. A beautiful garden will soon become a scene of chaos unless we maintain it.

A promising relationship will soon die if do not work to keep it vital and flourishing. Without maintenance, it too will quickly dissolve into chaos. Maintenance means doing things together that are pleasant for both of you.

Maintenance also means:

  • Having discussions that explore positive and mutual interests.
  • Taking time to accurately define problems instead of simply blaming or finding fault. Related post: Problem-Solving, Step 1: Identify the Problem and Define the Conflict
  • Honestly talking about those needs that are important to you.
  • Genuinely trying to see the other person’s perspective – to understand how the other person is seeing the world. That their point of view is as valid as yours and that you both can be right.

Relationships take a commitment – a willingness to give and take – a desire to better know the other.

Within our relationships, we learn the art of give and take and the humility of knowing we are not the end-all.

We learn the strength of defining our values and principles and the motivation to live them.

Within our relationships, we find ourselves if we are honest.

But it takes effort and work. Instead of looking for that blame factor, begin to believe the best in you and the best in the other. Challenge your thinking. Relationships are too important. The more we can appreciate each other, the happier we will be.

What can you do to make relationships better?

You cannot be responsible for the other person’s sincerity or desire to have a good relationship. But you can begin by defining what it means to you and then putting that into practice and action.

Not all relationships will survive – not all relationships are of the quality that should survive. We will falter and fail but we can look at our intentions, agendas and goals and honestly do what we can to improve.

So, ask yourself, “This relationship is important because…”

Then ask, “What actions do I need to put in place to make it grow and thrive?”

We can’t change another. But our behaviors, actions, sincerity, and honesty can and will influence others.

Understanding Conflict and Working Through It

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A lot of our conflicts are fueled by early childhood experiences, those internalized and unresolved memories that trigger anger and resentment and drastically influence the relationships we have as adults.

Basics of Conflict

Before you can negotiate conflicts, you need to first understand what you bring to them.

  • What triggers a conflict for you?
  • What are you feeling and experiencing?

That requires honesty without making excuses. It is so easy to see ourselves as a victim and play the blame game. However, when you give up your responsibility, you also give up your personal power.

Next is understanding others.

Why do you think they do the things they do?

When conflict begins, we can make a decision not to attack and defend but instead acknowledge the differences we have. We can respect others even when we disagree.

The goal in conflict is to come to some resolution or understanding that both of you can live with. That involves learning the skills of negotiation, listening, and communication.

If you believe you have no other option but to fight, retaliate, or give in, it’s time to step away and evaluate who you are and your core beliefs. Every person has the right to be themselves within the parameters of not taking advantage of someone or doing someone harm.

When there is a conflict we naturally assume it is because of what the other person did or didn’t do. But it takes two to tango – it takes two to remain in a conflict. You may not be able to arrive at the solution you want, but there is a solution of some kind available.

If conflict is ongoing, recognize when it begins, count to ten, take some deep breaths, go for a walk and ask yourself, “How have I contributed to this situation?”

This is different than automatically thinking, “I must have done something wrong to make this person act this way.” Each of us is responsible for our behaviors and for discovering why we do the things we do.

Resolving conflict

Conflicts can only be resolved when we face them, stop blaming, communicate how we feel and what we want, and take the time to understand where the other person is coming from. Otherwise, we will generalize the problem (“everybody acts like this.”) We will use put-downs, superiority tactics, or labeling to justify why we feel we are okay and it’s all the other person’s fault.

The first thing to do during a conflict is to acknowledge your feelings and own them.

Identify why the situation (not the person) made you feel the way you do.

Then ask for what you want. This is sometimes referred to as an “I” statement. “I get angry when I am talking and am constantly being interrupted. I would appreciate being able to complete my sentence.”

In that interchange, note it’s important to refer to what you are feeling, why you are feeling that way, and what you would like to have happen.

When you make an “I” statement, never use the word “you.” When “you” is inserted, it becomes an attack, and the other person will defend and counterattack.

When this goes on long enough, words become weapons of choice designed to injure the other in some way. Sometimes the damage can be brutal, leaving lots of scar tissue. A marriage or relationship can be so severely damaged that recovery is impossible. Words become like sharp knife blades.

When you are in a conflict, what is your goal?

What do you want for the result? Is it to be able to communicate better – to be better understood?

If so, before you can expect these things from another, you need to learn the skills of communication and try to understand the other person’s point of view. You don’t have to agree with why they feel or do things a certain way, but you respect it. This helps in negotiation.

Conflicts may be divisive but they can be great teachers

Relationships are never perfect.

Relationships are where we learn we are not the end-all – the greatest thing on God’s green earth.

… Where we learn that we don’t always get what we want.

…Where we learn to appreciate our differences.

…Where we learn to negotiate and compromise and sacrifice personal wants.

…Where we learn that our need for each other is more important than winning a battle.

…Where we learn to practice the concepts of love and grace.

… Where we learn to give and receive.

The hidden questions within our conflicts:

  • What do I really want?
  • What do I need from the other?
  • What does the other need from me?
  • What will be different – what will remain the same?
  • What is the most important priority in this conflict?
  • Am I willing to work towards a win-win?

We enter relationships because we need people.

We want to be loved and accepted for who we are in spite of our shortcomings. We want to be heard and understood. We want what a relationship can bring, but we aren’t always ready to work on making that happen. Yet, moving in and out of relationships is not very satisfying over the long term.

So, is there any hope? Is there ever a chance that we won’t be in some kind of ongoing conflict without having to give up our rights, our wishes, our wants, our needs? Can there be a win-win solution?

Life is never perfect. But when we have identified a problem adequately, we can work on finding solutions.

We cannot avoid conflicts.

Our relationships will in some way be identified with how well we are able to negotiate and affirm each other. At some point, those relationships may break down. The best friend we thought would be loyal forever does some egregious thing and we struggle with our friendship.

Without listening, understanding and forgiveness, those good friendships can end up on the garbage heap. Instead of doing things together, we find ourselves at opposite sides of life. It doesn’t feel good, and we wonder how we got there.

The same is true in our marriages. I choose the word marriage, because within its tenants there is a commitment, even though we are not very good at honoring that commitment. A live-together may have the same ideals of a commitment but they are not spoken.

So where do you begin?

If you are anything like me, I don’t like conflict. Neither do I like to be used or disrespected. And whether I like to deal with conflict or not, it is a part of life.

I believe we begin by establishing the values and principles by which we will live.

  • What do you believe and why?
  • Do you change your values to correspond to whatever the culture of the day says it should be?

And if you do change your values, aren’t you at risk of becoming someone who is not honest, sincere, and reliable? If you choose to follow a religion of hate, you will not only destroy yourself, but others around you.

I have chosen to follow the tenants of Christianity that has its roots in the beginning of time. It is where I find love, grace, forgiveness, and rules for living that go beyond the test of time. While I grew up in the church, each person who professes to be a Christian is required to eventually choose to make this their personal belief.

Review your beliefs and why you have chosen them. Be willing to live them.

Then, when you are in a conflict, make a personal rule that no matter how you feel, you will avoid pointing the finger or disavowing your beliefs.

No matter how egregious the situation, pointing the finger eliminates the need to check your own behaviors and intents. We are prone to seeing the other person’s faults but not our own. Or we only see our faults and never the other person’s.

When one finger is pointed outward, there are at least three that are pointed inward to oneself.

Based on A Couple’s Guide to Communication, by Dr. John Gottman

“That’s Not What I Meant”: 11 Pointers to Promote Good Listening

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“But you said…”

“No, I didn’t…”

“Yes, I heard you say…”

“Well, that’s not what I meant!”

And so, it goes – round and round and round, until we end up with two angry people who continue to find ways to attack, defend, and destroy each other.

You were sure you said what you believed would be easily understood. And yet, that is not what the other person heard. Anger is intensified, and you dig in your heels and refuse to budge.

How did we get into this conflict in the first place? And how do we get out of it?

Everybody wants their needs met. Everybody wants to win. Everybody wants to be liked and appreciated and respected. And yet, we fight more than we agree.

When we find ourselves in constant disagreement, we believe that if the other person would only see our point of view, we wouldn’t have this problem. “If you cared, wouldn’t you understand my needs?”

The only problem is that the other person is thinking the same thing. And since neither person is listening to the other, the conflict intensifies.

Recognizing Patterns of Response

To end the constant arguing and quarreling, we need to first become aware of our patterns of communicating.

What ignites our conflicts?

What is our typical pattern of response?

These patterns soon become habits that are constantly repeated.

The first step in stopping conflicts is breaking our usual pattern of response.

Different Perceptions

When dealing with others it is important to understand that each of us sees the world differently. Our observations influence how we determine reality. It plays a role in our self-esteem and how we present ourselves.

We cannot separate people from their emotions, deeply held values, or different perspectives and viewpoints. To communicate effectively, we need to build trust, understanding, and respect.

Interpretations will be different. When we continue to experience disagreements, it’s time to examine how we talk and listen.

Understanding requires active listening. Listening requires attention, effort, time, and focus. Our brains are going so fast we often become bored and shut down before we have heard what the other person is trying to say.

Meanings are in people. We infer meanings to the words we hear. The problem comes when our inferences become confused with facts. When we make inferences, we are usually mind-reading. Then a perception check is needed.

11 Pointers to Establish Good Listening

Many of the problems we experience in communication happen because we don’t understand how to listen.

Here are 11 pointers that can help establish good listening.

1. Keep body language and tone of voice the same. Look at the person. Give them your full attention. Does the expression or tone of their voice match the verbal message?

2. Stay focused on what is being said. Don’t plan your reply. Actively work at listening. Resist distractions. Keep an open mind.

3. Suspend judgments. Delay evaluations. Don’t make snap decisions. Rather than reacting to perceived criticism, find common ground – someplace where you both can agree, even if it is agreeing to disagree.

4. Don’t speak for the other person. Wait and listen! Listen for ideas.

5. Restate what you hear. Paraphrasing isn’t interpretation. It is clarification. You don’t add to what the other has said. You simply restate what you heard in your own words and ask for clarification.

“What I heard you say was… is that correct?”

6. Be reflective. Validate feelings. Mirror back what you see and hear.

“It sounds to me like you are sad about…”

“I’ll bet that’s frustrating…”

“You’re upset with me because…”

“You sound like you feel anxious about…”

“I’m not sure I understand. Did you mean you are disappointed that…”

7. Avoid advising. People want us to listen and help clarify. Unless you are working together on a problem, giving advice, or offering solutions is a put-down. It says, “You are not capable of making a decision.”

8. Don’t analyze. Interpretations are helpful only when people ask for your aid in considering alternative meanings. They don’t want you to think for them. Examples of interpretations:

“I think what’s really bothering you is…”

“I don’t think you really meant that…”

9. Ask questions for clarification. Questions can help problem-solve and can clarify thinking and understanding. Use information that others bring to you. Here are some examples.

“You said Mary was acting differently toward you lately. What was she doing?’

“Do you have any reasons for (saying or doing) that?”

“Is that very important to you?”

“How did you feel when that happened?”

“Did you decide that or were you feeling under pressure?”

10. Be careful when reassuring others. Your words may not be supportive.

“You’ve got nothing to worry about. I know you’ll be fine.”

“Don’t worry; we all love you.”

“You should get out more. Then you will feel better.”

A better approach would be to validate feelings – normalize what is happening to the other person. Empathy says, “I hear you. I can understand where you are coming from.”

11. Prompt with encouraging statements. Brief statements of encouragement help the other person sort things out.

 “Uh-huh.”  Or, “I see…” indicate you are listening.

Purposeful Conversation

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As I sat with my friend, having dinner, I was struck by how many couples were sitting opposite each other, engrossed in their cell phones, with only an occasional comment to their partner. Or they were simply sitting quietly, looking out the window or watching the activity in the restaurant, each deep in their own thoughts, with emptiness reflected on their faces.

Where was the active engagement in conversation? Where was the listening, gesturing, offering points of view, and laughing? Moments in time that offered opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle and connect with each other instead were spent absorbed in trivial things.

Relationships take time to develop. They require ongoing conversation, face-to-face interaction, discussion about problems, listening, and then responding.

Relationships require feedback for better understanding, validation, and confirmation of feelings.

Relationships require being in the present moment with each other and a willingness to work together.

Good conversation is intentional. Good conversation is necessary to maintain a strong relationship.

Too often, couples get mired down with work or other obligations. When they finally take time for a dinner out, their conversation gets caught up in all the problems they are facing to the exclusion of their goals and plans for the future. One person often dominates the conversation, and the night ends with frustration and depression over the problems they are facing.

“This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

— Psalm 118:24

We have 24 hours in every day. How much of that time is spent in purposeful discussion?

When you spend time with another, being in the moment is imperative. Otherwise, the conversation has no meaning. It doesn’t mean you can’t talk about problems, but problems should not be the only thing.

We only have that moment. Any moment in time holds the promise of discovery, reflection, or opportunity.

In The Art of Living Consciously, Dr. Nathaniel Branden, speaks to the need to take responsibility for where we are at any point in time. “Living consciously is a state of being mentally active rather than passive.”

We live in a fast-paced world, with everyone going in different directions, oftentimes fragmented and disconnected. We are faced with drastic changes in our worldview that challenge our values and beliefs. There is less and less time to sit and enjoy each other’s company.

It isn’t just how we say or interpret what was said. Words themselves used in different contexts can have different meanings.

Consider the word “work.”

We think of work as something we don’t especially enjoy but are required to do. And yet when we are “working” on a project we like, such as painting or cooking or creating or maintaining a garden, we don’t think of “work” the same way. It is something we enjoy – it is the effort used to accomplish things that give us deep satisfaction and joy.

I believe that many marriages would not end up in divorce if there were regularly scheduled times to “be” in each other’s company, without phones or iPads, to-do lists or complaints.

We schedule time away with the “guys” or “gals,” but do not see the need to schedule purposeful time with our mates to share our love and let them know how much they mean to us, focusing on their good attributes rather than the things that irritate or displease us.

How important is your marriage? How important are your relationships?

When we make a commitment to spend quality time with the people we care about and love, we will be rewarded with incredible blessings.

Life isn’t a “bowl of cherries” where everything is great, and we are given all the love and attention we crave.

Life, instead, is a challenge to ferret out the important and work hard to build on that.