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On March 5th, 2020 we held our 2nd Live Invested with Us event. We invited Dr. Todd Hardin to speak about how to “Cultivate a Successful Marriage.” He graciously shared his outline with us. Thank you to all who came. We strive to help our clients Live Invested. 

Playing to Win: How to Cultivate a Successful Marriage

By Dr. Todd Hardin, PhD

Big Idea: Winning marriages have partners who know the game, play the game, and play to win.

Step 1: Diagnosing your Marital Style: Knowing the Game

There are three successful marital styles. Successful marriages come in a variety of shapes and sizes. However, these three styles tend to work best in the long run. Winning marriages have couples who understand their style and work towards their strengths without trying to be what they are not.

1. The Conflict Avoidant couple

  • Conflict avoiders minimize persuasion attempts and instead emphasize their areas of common ground.
  • They avoid conflict, avoid expressing what they need from one another, and congratulate their relationship for being generally happy.
  • An important aspect about conflict-avoiding couples is in the balance between independence and interdependence. They have clear boundaries and are separate people with separate interests.

2. The Volatile Couple

  • Almost the exact opposite of conflict avoiders, volatile couples are intensely emotional.
  • During a conflict discussion, they begin persuasion immediately and they stick to it throughout the discussion.
  • Their debating is characterized by a lot of laughter, shared amusement, and humor.
  • They seem to love to debate and argue, but they are not disrespectful and insulting.

3. The Validating Couple

  • The interaction of these couples is characterized by ease and calm. They are somewhat expressive but mostly neutral.
  • In many ways, they seem to be intermediate between avoiders and the volatile couples.
  • They put a lot of emphasis on supporting and understanding their partner’s point of view, and are often empathetic about their partner’s feelings.
  • They will confront their differences, but only on some topics and not on others.
  • They can become highly competitive on some issues, which can turn into a power struggle. Then they usually calm down and compromise.
  • During conflict, validating couples are only mildly emotionally expressive.
  • Once again, the ratio of positive-to-negative affect for validators averaged around five to one.


Step 2: Discerning your Marital Dance: Playing the Game

Marriage is a series of interpersonal interactions. To play the game, you must know the state of the relationship and how you can make things spin in the right direction (instead of spinning out of control). Here, we look at two things: Where are we? And, which direction are we spinning?

Where are we?


  • The first horseman is criticism.
  • Criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint.
  • The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack.
  • It is an attack on your partner at the core of their character.
  • In effect, you are dismantling their whole being when you criticize.


  • The second horseman is contempt.
  • When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean—we treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names, and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing.
  • The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.
  • Contempt goes far beyond criticism. While criticism attacks your partner’s character, contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over them.


  • The third horseman is defensiveness, and it is typically a response to criticism.
  • We’ve all been defensive, and this horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks.
  • When we feel unjustly accused, we fish for excuses and play the innocent victim so that our partner will back off.
  • Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful.
  • Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take their concerns seriously and that we won’t take responsibility for our mistakes.


  • The fourth horseman is stonewalling, which is usually a response to contempt.
  • Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding to their partner.
  • Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall can make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors.
  • It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a bad habit.
  • And unfortunately, stonewalling isn’t easy to stop. It is a result of feeling physiologically flooded, and when we stonewall, we may not even be in a physiological state where we can discuss things rationally.

Which direction are we spinning?

  • Counselor Paul David Tripp talks about something called the Principle of Inescapable Influence
  • The Principle of Inescapable Influence comes from Luke 6:45 which says something along the lines of “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”
  • So, the idea here is that we are like tubes of toothpaste. When we are squeezed whatever is on the inside comes out.
  • And since we are in a connected relationship with our spouses, we can quickly find ourselves in what Emerson Eggerichs calls the Crazy Cycle.
  • If we want to succeed in our marriages, we must identify the crazy cycle and then take steps to first, stop the merry-go-round, and second, begin spinning it in the opposite direction.
  • When we do this, we are transforming the crazy cycle into an energizing cycle.
  • The question becomes, in the couple, who is the one responsible for changing the direction of the cycle? That is easy, the most spiritually mature partner.
  • The next question becomes “How do we change the direction we are spinning?”

Step 3: Demonstrating Loving Communication: Playing to Win

Once we know the game we are playing, and after we’ve had a chance to understand how we’re playing the game, we can learn how we can play to win. We win through good communication skills. We listen well so we can H-E-A-R what our playing partner is saying:

H = Humility

Consider the fact that you are probably not 100% infallible when it comes to the current conflict.

Use what David Burns calls the Disarming Technique: You find truth in what the other person is saying, even if it seems illogical, self-serving, distorted, or just plain “wrong.”

E = Empathy

Thought and Feeling Empathy: You summarize what the other person just said (Thought Empathy) and acknowledge how he or she is probably feeling, given what he or she just said (Feeling Empathy)

Inquiry: You as gentle, probing questions to learn more about what the other person is thinking and feeling.

A = Assertiveness

“I Feel” Statements: You express your own feelings and ideas openly according to the formula, “I’m feeling X, Y, and Z right now,” where are X, Y and Z refer to any of a wide variety of feeling words, such as anxious, attacked, hurt, or sad.

These X-Y-Z statements deal with: your partner’s behaviors (X),

how you feel in response to those behaviors (Y), and the consequences of those behaviors (Z).

R = Respect

Affirmation (formerly called Stroking): You convey warmth, caring and respect, even in the heat of battle.

You always value your spouse by giving them the benefit of the doubt in your communication.

Conclusion: If you follow these three steps, you will win at the game of marriage!



David Burns, The Five Secrets of Effective Communication (Part 1)

Emerson Eggerichs, Love & Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs

John Gottman, The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling

John Gottman, The 5 Types of Couples

Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands


Todd’s Contact Information

Email: [email protected] Twitter: @toddhardin

Website: DrToddHardin.com