To think about getting a divorce because love has died is like selling your car because it’s about to run out of gas.

As a marriage counselor, I witness first-hand the courage of those people who are committed to taking what are often painful steps towards saving their marriage. Conversely, I also see those who have already checked out and want to be able to say, “Yeah, I went to counseling, but it didn’t work.”

So why do so many marriages run out of gas? Consider the following analogy.

Next week I will take my car in for its regular maintenance and a minor repair based on an indicator light that recently appeared. The car is six years old. I expect I will spend around four to five hundred dollars. This is what responsible people do, right? We take care of our things. We want to make sure that everything is operating properly and that our car has been well maintained. We even keep all the records so we know exactly what needs to looked after next.

To be forthright, your marriage will break down if you don’t invest in regular maintenance! Pay attention to your relationship’s indicator lights. Get better at reading the right signs.

Here’s a key question: Why don’t people invest in their most valued relationship? Why do so many people fail to realize that marriages need maintenance, too?

An easy answer would be that few of us had the luxury of having been raised by extraordinary role models who provided consistent examples of loving, supportive, respectful relationships. As a result, many of us muddle along foolishly expecting success to happen because we married for love, and then when it derails, we’re hurt and bewildered.

Don’t despair. Marriages have service centers, too. You! You’re the gas. Yes, it takes work, commitment, perseverance, and love, but you can salvage your marriage because you already have the basic skill that is required. In fact, you acquired this skill at an early age and you use it daily. It’s called communication.

It’s important to have a sense of where the minefields are when you communicate with your partner and then know how to navigate through your marriage with clarity, purpose, satisfaction and joy.

Dr. John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” provide a helpful approach to improving communication between partners.
The first horseman is Criticism. Please don’t confuse criticism with complaining because they are two very different beasts. While a complaint focuses on a specific behaviour, “I’m disappointed you didn’t tell me earlier that you were too tired to make love,” criticism attacks a person’s character. What could have been a request for a behaviour change now becomes a full condemnation: “Why are you always so nasty? Whenever I want to make love, you always say you’re too tired. You are so selfish!”

See the difference? The reality is that criticism is very common in relationships and, regrettably, it almost always leads to the second horseman: Contempt. Have you been the recipient of sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humour? If so, then you know first-hand what contempt feels like; and, since it communicates disgust from your partner, contempt is the worst of the four horsemen because it has only one outcome: it escalates conflict.

Now the third horseman thunders in; this one is called Defensive. Being human, it’s natural to become aggressive when you are being criticized, it’s natural to want to shift the blame to the partner who is conducting the criticism, and it’s natural to take the stance that “You’re the problem, not me,” but you are both in this marriage and you both need to work on avoiding these spiteful outcomes.

When the first three Horsemen are used in a conversation—first criticism, then contempt, followed by defensiveness—one partner will respond by tuning out the other, and that invites, you guessed it, the fourth horseman: Stonewalling.

Stonewalling is a natural defense against the feeling of being flooded by a partner’s negativity. In response to the criticism, contempt and defensiveness that has escalated the conversation to a dangerous level, the stonewaller’s reaction is to withhold any signs of responsiveness, kind of like being in a state of shell-shock. Physiological changes such as increased heart rate, the secretion of adrenalin, and an increase in blood pressure also occur, which significantly decrease the ability to process information.

When a problem-solving discussion leads to one or both partners becoming stonewalled, the conversation is doomed to fail. Creative problem solving has left the relationship—but only temporarily!

Don’t lose heart. Now that you know to pay attention to the indicator lights, you can deconstruct this debilitating process by extracting your secret weapon: Regular Repair and Maintenance.

You start this maintenance by fine-tuning your channel of communication. If you have a complaint, don’t let it escalate into a criticism of your partner’s character. When you’re making your point, be immediate and specific—and respectful.

Become conscious about how you sound, model the behaviour of “active listening,” validate your partner’s perspective, tell your partner their feelings are legitimate even if you don’t identify with what they are feeling, shift to something you can easily appreciate about your partner, and finally, claim responsibility by saying to yourself, “What can I learn from this? What can I do about it?”

Marriages fall apart for a wide variety of reasons, but recognizing the warning signs in your dialogues with your partner is the first step towards ensuring your relationship remains intact. Maybe right now you are feeling stuck, but don’t give up. Responding appropriately to the “indicator lights” that warn of the approach of the Four Horsemen provides you with the opportunity to give the appropriate level of maintenance to this most cherished relationship. Use your new and improved communication skills to stay tuned in to each other and to keep your marriage tank full.

Daniel Hughes is a family psychotherapist based in Victoria. To find out about his Bringing Baby Home workshops, visit victoriafamilytherapy.com.