One "Zinger" Can Undo 20 "I Love You"'s

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D


Love and commitment are necessary for a good marriage but they are not enough. John Gottman, author of "Why Marriages Succeed or Fail," his study of nearly two thousand marriages, says, for a marriage to be successful, a couple must have at least five positive moments for every negative moment. If the five to one ratio drops, lowering the number of positives, the marriage descends into a state of emotional poverty . The partners in the marriage suffer from "positive strokes deprivation." Beware, the power of the negative is far greater than the power of the positive. Unkind words echo in our ears for years while the kind words are forgotten in days. A "zinger," that is, a cruel and aggressive quip or retort, can cut wounds too deep for pacifying words to heal.

Many marriages break up simply because they can't withstand the crushing pressure of bitter arguments, insults, and unkind deeds. When the episodes of yelling at and blaming each other outnumber the times of laughing together and enjoying one another, the love, that juice of relationship, simply dries up. Once the love dries up, it may be too late to fix the relationship and mend the differences because there is nothing left to work with. Even if the couple comes for counseling at this stage, there is no real desire in either partner to change his or her ways, accommodate the other, or make sacrifices for each other.

Markman and Notorious, authors of the book, "We Can Work it Out," say that a marriage is in serious trouble when one or both partner do the following: 1. Instead of arguing the point or talking it out, begin to withdraw from the conflict 2. Have a tendency to escalate conflict. 3. Are unable to stop fights before they get ugly. 4. Hurl insults at each other during an argument.

Occasional arguments and angry exchange of words are resolved much easier in a relationship in which love and liking for each other prevails. But once a pattern of insults and ugly fights is established, all arguments and even the minor behaviors displayed during those arguments become highly "negatively charged." Each partner's body and nervous system respond with an increased heart rate, perspiration, and adrenaline pumping into the blood. Thus, minor behaviors and topics of disagreement are to a couple as the red cloth is to a bull. Tests carried out in the laboratory on couples in marital conflict have shown that when they begin to talk about the conflictual issues, even a slight change in the facial expression or tone of voice, a raised eyebrow, or curl of the lip will trigger an increase in the heart rate, perspiration, and the adrenaline level.

The increase in the heart rate, perspiration, adrenaline level and other physical stress responses result in production of more stress-hormones. The body then goes into a full blown "fight or flight" gear creating intense anger and fear. Just consider the impact on the physical and mental health of partners in bad marriages who live in this highly charged condition day after day for hours on end. They live in a chronic state of "flooding," that is, the body is being flooded by the stress-related secretions and hormones, which not only damages their health but also makes it extremely difficult for the partners to discuss the differences of opinion in a calm fashion in order to find solutions.

Furthermore, in such a state of flooding, it is difficult for either partner to think of the positive qualities and characteristics of the other partner, to remember the good times they had, or recall the things they used to do to please and make each other happy. The partners have to first learn to be calm and relaxed in each other's presence. Until then, they should not attempt to discuss or resolve their differences due to the intensity of the negative response they evoke in each other. Partners need to sit down, take a deep breath, relax, and learn to physically and mentally calm themselves while in each other's presence. Perhaps they may need a third party or a counselor to help them achieve this.

To learn to handle a conflict without hurting, insulting, and engaging in ugly fights is the single most important skill that partners can learn in order to save their marriage. Learn to suppress those facial expressions, modulate the tone and the pitch of that voice, avoid raising the eyebrows and curling of lips, and suppress the words and actions that provokes the partner. Studies show that conflict management and effective communication cuts down the divorce rate and domestic violence.

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