In temple sealing rooms, mirrors on opposite walls allow couples to gaze at their repeated image, which seems to go on endlessly. The reflection moves farther and farther away until it is almost as though they are being projected into another time and place. The symbolism is unmistakable—their union is supposed to last for eternity.
Few newlyweds understand how fragile those seemingly endless images can be.
Of course, all marriages have challenges because of normal differences between men and women and because of the couple’s differing backgrounds and interests. Marriages can also be fragile because of entropy, meaning that anything left unattended tends to fall into a state of disorder. Lawns, gardens, cars, and children are examples; just leave them entirely to themselves and they quickly become problems. It takes effort and work to keep the weeds out. Marriage is no different.
While there are many challenges to marriages, this article focuses on only one—the negativity cycle.
Caught in the Cycle
Once in a counseling setting, I listened as a young woman—we’ll call her April—complained about her husband. She had arrived at a point where she could not remember anything that was ever good about the relationship or about him. I was astonished at how she could continue nearly nonstop for more than an hour describing flaw after flaw, disappointment after disappointment, hardly stopping to catch her breath.
It was obvious she had become obsessed with the beams she perceived in her husband’s eye (see Matt. 7:3). Every waking moment of the day and even during her dreams at night, she was filled with disapproving thoughts about her husband’s conduct. She had developed completely negative expectations of him, and she interpreted everything he did as fulfilling them. The marriage was in serious trouble.
How can a marriage that begins with much hope and love fall so low after just a few years? It doesn’t happen overnight. It is often the result of neglect, which allows entropy into the home, and a lack of mutual respect, which breeds unwillingness to overlook each other’s weaknesses and faults.
Let’s examine, step by step, how April and her husband, “Tom,” arrived at this awful state and then see how they saved their marriage.
The Positive-Negative Balance
The first discernible change in April and Tom’s marriage was a drop in positive communication. Researchers have noted that healthy relationships need a five-to-one ratio of positive-to-negative communication to survive. 1 This positive communication can be anything from a wink or a hug to a rose or a “You look great.”
Nearly all marriages start with a positive ratio. In the early stages of courtship, where love is often blind, the ratio can be 1,200 positives to 0 negatives. Some call this the “illusion stage.” Sooner or later, married couples start to see things they hadn’t noticed before. They wake up and realize, “My spouse is not acting at all as I expected!” They have entered the “disillusionment stage,” where reality confronts blind love head on.
This disillusionment stage crept up on April over a period of years until her private negative thoughts about Tom canceled out all his good qualities. It was as though she were wearing blinders that blocked out most of the good things Tom did and allowed her to see only what she didn’t like.
April continued along the negativity cycle by complaining about what she didn’t like. Complaints are not necessarily bad; for many couples, expressing concerns can help clear the air if communicated kindly. But Tom made a serious mistake at this point that ensured the downward spiral would continue. Rather than listen nondefensively to his wife’s concerns about their differences, he chose to downplay their importance and did little to change or compromise. He let entropy set in by neglecting his responsibility.
King Benjamin warned about this kind of reaction to sincere expressions of concern: “My brethren, … I have not commanded you to come up hither to trifle with the words which I shall speak, but that you should hearken unto me, and open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand” (Mosiah 2:9). Just as King Benjamin felt he deserved the undivided attention of his people, husbands and wives deserve to be taken seriously when they have a complaint or a concern to express. No one deserves to be trifled with when speaking from the heart to a loved one.
Escalation of the Problem
As can be the case, when April’s complaints were trifled with, she chose to exaggerate them, trying to get Tom to react and deal with the problem. This brought into the marriage what researcher John Gottman refers to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 2 Chapter 6 of Revelation speaks of four horsemen tied to judgments that will come upon the world, and thus these horsemen have become associated with destruction. The four mentioned here will certainly bring destruction to a marriage if they go unchecked.
The first horseman is criticism. When we criticize others, we attack their personality or character, usually with blame, rather than a specific behavior. April voiced a variety of criticisms: “Tom, you obviously just don’t care!” “You should get up for family prayer and be more energetic.” “You should start putting the family first.” “You should. …”
Tom again made a serious mistake. Rather than consider what might be the reasons for April’s comments, he still did nothing to change his behavior. Doing nothing is easy, involves no sacrifice—and feeds entropy in the marriage.
This continued trifling with his wife’s expressions of frustration led to April’s next mistake. She invited the second horseman, contempt, into their home. April was soon saying things like, “Tom, you’re a failure as a husband and father!” or “I had to call the plumber again today because you are so lazy!” The result was darkness. “And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness” (D&C 50:23).
At this point Tom had two choices. The first was to try finally to understand his wife’s frustrations and respond nondefensively as Lehi did when Sariah “complained against” him (1 Ne. 5:2). Lehi respected his wife’s expression of frustration with their precarious situation in the wilderness and comforted her. In order to follow Lehi’s example, Tom would have needed to pause and consider April’s accusations. He might have said to himself, “I must have watched way too much basketball (golf, soccer, etc.) on TV Saturday to upset her this much” or “She’s right; I have been neglecting her. I don’t blame her for feeling like this.”
When we choose, as Lehi did, to control “natural man” thoughts and respond kindly, we invite the Holy Ghost into the home. Respect, empathy, and patience give the Spirit a chance to soften our hearts and lead us both to repent. This can set off the chain reaction described in Doctrine and Covenants 50:24 [D&C 50:24]: “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”
Tom’s other choice for responding to his wife’s concerns was straight from the natural man handbook, the sort of action that can put us carelessly in opposition to God’s will (see Mosiah 3:19). He ignored his wife’s frustration yet again. Choosing this option allowed Tom’s pride to make him dwell on negative thoughts about his accuser: “What’s her problem? Why can’t she just leave me alone?”
These types of reactions lead to the third horseman—defensiveness. At this stage, we refuse to acknowledge our part in the problem. We deny responsibility and make excuses and counteraccusations instead of listening to our spouse’s concerns. We stubbornly pass all responsibility for fixing the problem back to our spouse.
Defensiveness often escalates to the point where the fourth horseman—stonewalling—enters the picture. To stonewall is to simply walk away from the problem and cut off all interaction that leads to a solution. A problem in a marriage may never be resolvable when one spouse refuses to discuss it.
The consequences of allowing the four horsemen into a marriage can be devastating. The negativity cycle has a predictable train of events. When problems are not worked through, couples often become so upset that constructive discussion is not possible. They feel that talking the problems out is useless. Often they start to lead parallel lives in which they seldom spend any time with each other. All of this brings feelings of loneliness and rejection.
The final stage before breakup is for the couple to start rewriting their history: they forget all the good times and rewrite the past in light of their present feelings.
This is where we began with April and Tom. Here is how they overcame their problem.
Breaking the Negativity Cycle
Often it is a couple’s inability to allow the Atonement to operate in their relationship that causes the negativity cycle to continue until it devours the marriage. They refuse to allow the Atonement to take effect in their own lives and in the life of the one they loved.
Ideally, when we do something that irritates or hurts our spouse, the “at-one-ment” makes it possible for us to regain lost trust and unity in two ways. First, the Atonement allows us to gain forgiveness from God, thereby restoring our own feelings of self-worth. Second, the Atonement encourages our spouse to forgive us and cast aside negative thoughts. In fact, the scriptures tell us we are required to forgive one another (see D&C 64:9–11).
When a spouse goes through the repentance process provided through the Atonement, we are to follow the example of the Lord in His attitude toward that person: “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more” (D&C 58:42). Sometimes our inability to forgive and forget perpetuates the negativity cycle. Refusing to forgive others separates us spiritually from the Savior and destroys relationships.
The Importance of Self-Discipline
To apply the Atonement in marriage, we need to discipline our thoughts and control any natural tendency to be sharp-tongued or judgmental (see Ps. 39:1; Prov. 21:23; James 3:1–5). A good way to do this is to make a list of positive traits about your spouse and then commit it to memory. When you find yourself thinking negatively about your spouse, discipline yourself to remember the good times and the many wonderful traits that attracted you to him or her in the first place. Verbalize these compliments to your spouse often to keep the constructive communication ratio high. Consider keeping a journal of positive family experiences and feelings to draw upon when you’re tempted to rewrite your marital history in a negative light. If possible, keep a photo album of special occasions.
When you allow pride to lead you into the negativity cycle, it is like trying to swim while wearing a diver’s weight belt: it takes all your energy just to keep your head above water. Let go of the pride, repent, and unstrap the weight belt of negative feelings and replace them with positive thoughts. Invite the Holy Spirit to heal and protect your union. Positive thoughts, aided by the Spirit, act like a life vest to help keep you afloat so you can use your energy to stay on course.
April and Tom used these techniques to redirect the course of their marriage.
Commitment to Overcome
Through commitment to covenants, we can overcome the marriage-destroying consequences of the negativity cycle. President Gordon B. Hinckley has counseled: “Every marriage is subject to occasional stormy weather. But with patience, mutual respect, and a spirit of forbearance, we can weather these storms. Where mistakes have been made, there can be apology, repentance, and forgiveness. But there must be willingness to do so on the part of both parties.” 3
Nearly a century and a half ago, President Brigham Young explained how true charity can help couples weather marital storms when clouds of negativity threaten. His counsel was addressed to women of the Church, but the principles he taught apply equally to husbands and wives:
“Were I a woman possessed of great powers of mind, filled with wisdom, and, upon the whole, a magnanimous woman, and had been privileged with my choice, and had married a man, … he not answering my expectations, and I being sorry that I had made such a choice, let me show my wisdom by not complaining about it. … By seeking to cast off her husband—by withdrawing her confidence and good will from him, she casts a dark shade upon his path, when, by pursuing a proper course of love, obedience, and encouragement, he might attain to that perfection she had anticipated in him.” 4
The type of pure love and sacrifice suggested by President Young comes when both husband and wife are firmly committed to eternal covenants. This presupposes that there is no abuse in the marriage. As April and Tom returned to the temple seeking help with their marriage, they again realized how important their covenants with God and each other were. They vowed not to allow negativity and darkness into their home and to actively seek that light which could help them grow “brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”
They found that breaking the negativity cycle freed them to build on the best they could be together rather than tearing each other down individually. They renewed the hope found in those seemingly endless images they had seen in the mirrors of the temple on their wedding day.
There Is But One Way
“There is but one way that we can be united, and that way is to seek the Lord and his righteousness. … Unity comes by following the light from above. It does not come out of the confusions below.” President Marion G. Romney (1897–1988), First Counselor in the First Presidency, “Unity,” Ensign, May 1983, 17.