By Justyna Balzar, M.Ed., BCBA
Recently I came across two different media outlets discussing problem behaviors detrimental to marriage. The first was an article posted on bSci21.org by Dr. Todd Ward titled, “Changing Four Behaviors that Predict Divorce with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.” The second, was an interview on with Kristin Bell on the Harry Connick Jr. Show. Both reminded me of a conversation I had with my uncle almost 10 years ago at the beginning of my marriage.
My uncle is a big role model in my life. He and my aunt built an incredible marriage and family, one that I aspire to emulate. They taught me many important lessons and helped shape me into the person I am today.
In our conversation, he outlined the importance of fighting fair in relationships. Without knowing it at the time he operationally defined what that looked like. My uncle is not a behavior analyst by trade but certainly one at heart, especially per this advice!
These are not the words he used verbatim, instead are important pieces of the conversation that continue to resonate with me years later. He defined fighting fair to mean: the ability to tell your side of the story using “I” statements, to use a calm respectful tone, to listen to your significant other without interrupting, to focus on the behavior or action versus putting down or name calling, to compromise and work together towards a mutually agreed upon solution, even if that solution is to agree to disagree.
Perhaps the most important statement he made that night was, “it takes two to create a problem.” What a profound statement! Problems are never one sided and it is definitely easier to point out another’s wrongful contribution to a problem than to try to acknowledge your own or how you could have handled a situation differently. Now I can’t say that every problem in my marriage has been resolved this way, especially not in the beginning.
However, with this sound advice, ongoing learning about and exposure to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), as well as beginning to understand my own behavior and the behavior of others, this advice makes more and more sense as time passes.
Applying this to my own life and marriage, while difficult at times, proves easier with repeated practice. The results of applying “fighting fair behavior” include improved communication, collaboration and problem solving abilities. Most importantly, our marriage continues to get better with time.
In the article by Dr. Todd A. Ward, on bSci21.org, authored in February 2015, Dr. Ward identified 4 behaviors detrimental to marriage and how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help improve replacement behaviors that promote a thriving marriage. He identified and defined the four behaviors as:
“Contempt: A mix of anger and disgust, believing your partner is beneath you in some way.”
“Criticism: Specifically criticizing the person as a whole, as above and beyond specific actions.”
“Defensiveness: For example, if you both arrive late for an important engagement and you immediately blame it on your spouse to those around you.”
“Stonewalling: Stonewalling, being totally unresponsive to attempted conversation from your partner”
When I reflect on these four behaviors and the conversation, I had with my uncle, each of these is the opposite of the behavior that needs to be exhibited for fighting fair to occur. “Contempt” closes one off to hearing what your partner is saying. If you can’t hear the other side of the story then you are resolute to a very biased view of the problem. “Criticism” of the person as a whole versus the behavior or action takes away from the ability to solve the problem. It is hurtful and perpetuates the cycle of contempt each person has for the other. “Defensiveness” and the inability to admit and reflect how you contributed to the problem further perpetuates the other two behaviors. Finally, “stonewalling” a complete shutdown, is counter to the advice of respectfully working towards a mutual resolution through open dialogue, even if the resolution consists of agreeing to disagree. Repetition of these behaviors leads to a very toxic marriage and ultimately as Dr. Ward pointed out in his article – divorce.
I recently viewed a video clip where Kristin Bell discussed how her husband Dax Shepard helped her become a better “fighter.” While her husband is not a behavior analyst, he took a very systematic approach to helping Kristin improve her fighting behavior. In the clip, she described what her fighting skills looked like during an argument, prior to his help. This included storming out of the room, then the house and then driving around the block. She refused to engage in dialogue about the problem. Instead her “fighting” behavior fell in the category of “stonewalling,” or being “unresponsive to attempted conversation.” She described how her husband identified that particular behavior as toxic and detrimental to the long-term success of their marriage. He offered to help her improve her “fighting fair” ability.
She described him as putting systematic limits or boundaries, ultimately shaping her “stonewalling” behavior, by telling her that she could storm out but not leave the house. Once successful with staying in the house, she could leave the room where the argument took place. The next step involved remaining in the room the argument took place with the option to refrain from speaking. As closer approximations to “fighting fair” behavior was shaped, new boundaries were set until the behavior was shaped to a healthier form of fighting altogether. She reflected on how toxic her initial “fighting” behavior was and how the replacement behaviors helped her to fight fair.
Whether your behaviors include contempt, criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, a combination of any of these, or all of the above, the success of a marriage – any relationship for that matter – hinge on replacing these behaviors with behaviors that fall in line with “fighting fair.” It is undoubtedly a healthier way to resolve conflict; one that opens doors instead of closes them.
Justyna Balzar is BCBA with a Masters in Curriculum and Education in Applied Behavior Analysis from Arizona State University. She has experience working with individuals with Autism and related disabilities in a variety of settings that include private school, public school, and home programs ranging in age from 3-18 years old. She is constantly seeking avenues to disseminate Behavior Analysis in conversation, presentations, and sharing Behavior Analytic content through her BehaviorChik Facebook page. She enjoys learning and discussing the boundless applications of ABA as they relate to all problems that involve behavior.