Married at First Sight is a popular show that captures our imagination about the meaning of marriage. Ryan De Nino and Jessica Castro are the darlings of the show, who had clearly had chemistry, and were the first couples to consummate the marriage. But is “chemistry” all that there is?
Most folks from outside the field of marriage counseling would believe that “fighting couples” on a show like this are doomed, but Gottman has shown that couples that fight a lot can be just as happy or miserable as those who never do.
Couples who successfully fight, fight “fair.”
And “fair” isn’t as simple as it sounds. It doesn’t mean ‘not getting angry.’ Ryan and Jess clearly get angry at one another, and that isn’t problematic by itself.
What Gottman found was that couples fight fair when they keep out four behaviors, he calls them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are:
They also have partner’s with “low poop detectors.” In other words, they have partners who “complain,” sometimes a lot.
Jess might want to complain, but she’s been matched with a guy who escalates their battles, meeting her complaints with defensiveness and criticism, with a healthy dose of contempt and stonewalling thrown in.
Jess wanted a man who was “humble,” according to the hype, and instead, she got Ryan, who hardly fits that definition. Ryan is a proud man.
She wanted balanced gender roles. Ryan, however, remembers how his “ideal” grandparents had pretty traditional gender roles. And as far as him sharing domestic labor? He runs a business. He could eat sushi every night, especially if it was his turn to cook. And these are the sorts of differences that can get an average couple into hot water.
Guys like Ryan are a norm in my practice. He’s hot-headed. He’s proud. He’s successful, and he’s used to getting his own way. And he’s never been taught how to get a better handle on that strong horse he rides: His temper.
The “Ryans” I see are helped when they understand that they can actually do something about their short fuse. They don’t have to live with it, and there’s a difference between being “honest” and being “critical.” Oh, they’ll never be Ryan R, but he can learn to recognize the internal signs that he’s starting to escalate, and can decide to calm down instead. And it will do great things for his marriage.
Quite often, guys like Ryan are choosing to storm out over a set of alternative behaviors they consider worse.
And they probably are.
Because quite often, when they get “hot under the collar,” they are physiologically in a state that Gottman calls “Diffuse Physiological Arousal,” DPA, or Flooding. Here’s a YouTube video I did on flooding (and a bunch of other issues related to couples therapy) that will explain it better than I can write it.
But in a nutshell, I can tell you what to do: when you’re flooded, leave, get your mind off the fight, then return after 20 minutes, and start back where you left off. It will be a different conversation.
This is such a classic fight, that an entire series, devoted to REAL couples therapy could be built around it.
If you haven’t seen the episode, Ryan is short on cash, so asks Jess if he can take a hundred dollar bill they got for their wedding, sitting in the drawer. My imagination is that he needed lunch money, “walking around money,” and hadn’t gone to the bank. Jessica is hurt, because to her, she wanted that money to “do something special” with. It is not just “cash” to her, but it is symbolic of their wedding, their commitment.
Clearly to Ryan, it’s simply cash.
Cash he needs.
Later on, Jess brings it up during a fight, and we see Ryan tell his pal that: “She accused me of stealing money.”
In real life, these are the kinds of fights that make up most of my working life with couples: They get hot fast, because each person has a lot invested in their own point of view. And this point of view directly conflicts, in an unflattering way, with the other person’s perspective. And both are hurt by it.
Put hurt, anger, and throw in a handful of rejection, and you have a fight that is likely not to be resolved easily. It’s full of symbolism.
To Ryan, he “heard” Jess accuse him of “stealing money,” and to a guy who drives a Benz, this is an insult of the highest order.
“Really? Stealing a hundred bucks…from my own wife!?!” I can hear the disgust.
To Jess, who works as a receptionist, a hundred dollars is a lot of cash. And its symbolism is so powerful because this marriage is already, by its very nature, on shaky grounds. The money represents an investment by family and friends in the two of them, as a couple. Her plans to “do something” with it, something they both decide to do with it.
This is her desire to have something tangible to further say to the world: “We’re a couple!”
If they were my clients, I’d do an exercise Gottman calls “Dreams Within Conflict,” around the hundred dollars. They’d process this fight as a way to learn to process all fights of this type: The ones that heat up quickly, and die down slowly.
The ones that cause people to hold resentments for YEARS.
We’re just learned that Jess has filed a restraining order, because he “threatened to kill her and her family.”
Ryan’s reactions are predictable: He wrote that it “had me in awe” and “disgusted” him.
A run-away horse, with a rider that no longer has the reins.
While it makes for good TV, it makes for a lousy marriage.
I work with real couples like these for a living.
Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her Intensive Couples Therapy practice over the winter in Miami, Fl and the rest of the year in Boston and on the edge of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. She is a Gottman Certified Couples Therapist, has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and has been a AASECT board-certified sex therapist from 1982-2017. She continues her work in sex therapy.