One second is all it takes for something to go wrong.

All my clients woke up one morning, thinking it was just another ordinary day. They didn’t know that their lives were going to change forever.

They didn’t know that the lives of everyone around them would also be changed forever.

I wonder if had they known their life was about to change dramatically, would they have spoken kinder words in the morning? Would they have lingered a little longer with the good bye, expressed appreciation, sealed the good bye with a kiss? Would they have done something different?

I certainly know they would have worn a helmet, worn a seatbelt, not gotten into the car with the drunk driver, called a cab, refused to get on the back of the motorbike, looked both ways again before crossing, slowed down, not driven in the ice rain, put the phone down, and paid attention to the flow of traffic. That is a given.

But while many survive the physical ailments they are plagued with, they continue to be haunted by their invisible injury: the brain injury. This brain injury often causes personality changes and it often leads to problems in relationships. Unfortunately though, their problems are not unique (although they may be amplified). We are all faced with them to one degree or another at one time or another.

Today I met with a couple with whom I love to work. Unfortunately, along with all the sequelae associated with a brain injury, they are having some serious communication issues which leads them to marital discord. They love each other, they just can’t communicate.

I watched them argue today, and it reminded me of a book I read entitled “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” by John M. Gottman. I had purchased this book when I first got re-married – worried of course about the second chance we were both giving love. It was a fascinating read and I learned a lot. What struck me the most was the fact that everyone fights. It is not the fights that break the relationship. It is HOW we fight that breaks the line of communication down.

In the book, Gottman gives 4 signs that indicate to him when a marriage won’t last:

1. Harsh Start Up: How quickly does the argument head to the gutter? Does the discussion immediately start up with sarcasm, negativity and contempt. If the discussion starts with a harsh start, it will inevitably end on a negative note. So,take a breather, and start over.

2. The Four Horsemen:
i) Criticism: Gottman says: “You will always have some complaints about the person you live with – but there’s a world of difference between a complaint and a criticism”. A complaint addresses a specific action. A criticism attacks the person’s character.

ii) Contempt: Start off with a criticism and then it leads to sneering, sarcasm, cynicism. It can be seen in name calling, eye rolling, mockery and hostile humour. It is poisonous and it conveys disgust. You can’t resolve a problem if you are disgusted with your partner.

iii) Defensiveness: Defensiveness is really a way of just blaming your partner. You are really just saying, “the problem isn’t me, it’s you”. Defensiveness just escalates conflict.

iv) Stonewalling: One partner just tunes out and disengages. Rather than fighting, indifference sets in. You avoid the fight, but you also avoid the marriage.

3) Flooding: Flooding means “that your spouses’ negativity (criticism, contempt, or defensiveness) is so overwhelming, it leaves you shell shocked”. You usually then do anything to avoid the attack and try to protect yourself from your spouse which leads to you disengaging emotionally from the relationship.

4) Body Language: Physiological signs are very telling.

In summary, Gottman says a “marriage meltdown can be predicted by habitual harsh start ups and frequent floodng brought on by the relentless presence of the 4 horsemen during disagreements”.

What it comes down to is, respect. Can you fight with respect, or does it go out the window when the gloves come on?

These warning signs were written for the purpose of identifying problems in marriages, but is it not the same for all relationships? Can we use these as guidelines of what we should look out for in every relationship that we have?

Brain injury may drastically change someone’s life and their ability to interact. Relationships certainly suffer. But sadly, it is not only the people living with this invisible injury that are haunted by communication issues. We all are, unless we protect ourselves.

Gottman suggests there are 7 fundamental principles that can guide us:

1. Enhance your love maps: Become intimately familiar with your partner’s world. A “love map” is an area in the brain where you store all the information about your partner. Get to know your partner’s goals, worries, fears and hopes.

2. Nurture your fondness and admiration: Remember the initial days in the relationship (be careful not to re-write them to support your negative feelings now) and build from there. You need to have some mutual fondness and admiration. Foster this by setting aside time as a couple. Having a “date night” needs to be a top priority.

3. Turn towards each other instead of away: Make your partner your “go to person”. Be your spouse’s biggest cheerleader and supporter. When you honour and respect each other you usually can appreciate each other’s point of view.

4. Let your partner influence you: Don’t always be threatened by thinking your spouse has more “power” than you. It’s ok to do something because that is what your spouse wants to do! It’s good to accept the influence of your spouse on you!

5. Solve your solvable problems: Learn a new approach to solving your conflict for issues that are solvable.

6. Over come gridlock: The goal in ending gridlock is not to solve the problem, but to move away from gridlock to dialogue. The gridlock issue may always be there, but you can learn to dialogue about it without hurting each other.

7. Create shared meaning: Create a vision together – a deeper purpose, an inner world, joint ambition and goals.

As I sat with my clients today, I was sad. Brain injury had claimed many parts of their lives and was certainly contributing to their communication challenges. However, they were struggling with many of the same issues what we all struggle with in a relationship, in a marriage. We need to be committed to fighting the struggles and not fighting each other.

It did help remind me how important and precious a good marraige is. How important it is to communicate and make your marriage your top priority. How important it is to not take your partner for granted and to shower them with your love. It just made me happy to go home to tell Rob about my day.

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