Marriage Is Like A Dance

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

"Marriage is like a dance." In that statement, more is implied than just the obvious fact that it takes two to tango.

In a dance both partners have to be closely attentive to each other and coordinate their steps. In order to keep the dance going, they have to be constantly moving and making a concerted effort to render the dance. While dancing, the duo gets close, very close, and then each of the partner steps back to give each other elbowroom to dance a little on their own. The work of deepening the relationship in a marriage never stops, just as the movement of dancers never stops until they intend to stop the dance.

What should couples do to strengthen their marriage? Furthermore, if their marriage is in trouble, what should they do to save it? The advice is twofold: love and don't fight. Merely following one part of the advice and ignoring the other won't be adequate. Love conquers all but being constantly on the battlefield will leave a warring couple totally exhausted and eventually in a divorce court.

Psychologist John Gottman, a renowned marriage researcher, has mastered the art of predicting which couples are headed for divorce. He is right 96 times out of 100. That is an incredible percentage. You just don't see that level of accuracy in social sciences because human behavior is extremely complex and open to literally millions of internal and external influences. Not only can he predict divorce so accurately, he makes that prediction after merely three minutes of observation.

How does John Gottman do that? He does it by watching a couple discussing one of their most sensitive topics such as the handling of "Johnny," spending priorities or the distribution of the household responsibilities. Gottman requests a strained couple to discuss one such issue and then looks for what he calls, a "harsh startup." If one or both partners become immediately negative or accusatory, that is identified as a harsh startup.

Criticism, blaming, sarcasm, sneering, mocking, or an outburst of anger delivered in the first three minutes of such a discussion are signs of a harsh startup, indicative of a seriously troubled marriage. Such a couple should seek counseling immediately. The research shows that any discussion that starts with a harsh startup will end inevitably in a negative and unhappy way. Such a discussion ends when partners withdraw, become silent and cold towards each other, cry or fight even more bitterly.

It would be nice if all the partners in the world would learn the art of calmly discussing the issues on which they disagree. A couple can learn to do this by first setting a 3-minute mutual goal in which each partner makes a commitment to himself or herself, for example, "For three minutes when we discuss (matter X), I will be calm and patient. That means I will not criticize, blame, ridicule, mock, sneer, insult or say or do anything that may hurt my partner." If you decide to do this, keep a stopwatch to mark the time. Keep a note pad to mark when you or your partner commits a "foul." In the beginning, there may be some misses but if you and your partner work as a team, you both can win.

Note, it is for just three minutes you have to do this, but don't underestimate the size of this task. Those three minutes can be the longest three minutes imaginable and may take everything you have to accomplish your goal. But when you succeed in achieving this goal several times in a row without a foul, you deserve to be congratulated. You have accomplished a no small feat. Now you are ready to set a 15-minute mutual goal.

A 15-minute mutual goal is similar to the 3-minute goal, just longer. For 15 minutes you and you partner set a goal discussing a pre-agreed topic of disagreement, that is, a topic on which you both have frequently disagreed in the past. The selected topic need not be the sorest and the bitterest issue between the two of you. You can take the most contentious issue when you have acquired some more experience. Again, set your watch and sit down. Before proceeding, agree with your partner to disagree.

For those 15 minutes, partners should make a commitment to themselves to refrain from criticism, blame, sarcasm, cynicism, name calling, eye rolling, sneering, mockery, etc. They should make a few positive rules as to how they would go about discussing the chosen topic of disagreement. Here are a few examples of such rules: only one person speaks at a time, at the most for two to three minutes, gives a signal to the other partner when finished, and so on.

Any couple which can accomplish the 15-minute goal several times in a row and has succeeded in discussing the most sore and bitter issue of disagreement without failing, has nothing to fear. That couple has eliminated unhealthy fighting from their disagreements. Their love can thrive in this emotional climate.

Research shows that highly negatively charged partners, who habitually engage in heated arguments, fighting and hurling insults at each other, are more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses such as cold and from such stress related illnesses as high blood pressure, chronic pain, or heart problems. Men should particularly take note of this. During a heated argument, his heart beats faster than hers and stays accelerated for longer periods even after the argument is over.

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Copyright 2000, Mind Publications 


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