Relationships are complicated and require daily work to maintain. When we maintain healthy relationships the payback can be quite fulfilling and rewarding. Often when couples get together they believe the fairy tale of happy ever after. There is a happy ever after for those willing to put the work in and look at their individual part in maintaining the happy ever after.
John Gottman of the Gottman Institute has studied relationships and has identified four criteria in couples that are predictors of success or failure in the relationship. He calls them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and names them this because relationships do not end because of anger and conflict but how the individuals communicate in their relationship. Gottman believes anger and conflict can be good for the relationship if the communication helps them clear the air. Anger and conflict can become destructive when the four horsemen ride into the communication. Gottman calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. (Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by John Gottman)
First step to ridding your relationship of these four horsemen is for you to observe and recognize when you use these tactics. With recognition comes the opportunity to change these behaviors so communication goes from destructive to constructive.
1. Criticism is the overgeneralized complaints that attack your partner’s character. Criticism uses phrases like: “You never,” “You always,” “You should,” “Why don’t you ever,” and “Why are you always?” When we criticize we set up a scenario where one partner is right and the other one is wrong. Criticism inevitably invites in another horseman: Defensiveness, because when we are criticized we feel we need to defend ourselves.
2. Contempt is psychologically abusing your partner with hostile words and body language. Contempt is more destructive then criticism because contempt is meant to harm and hurt with words and body language. When someone uses contempt they often will use putdowns, insults, name calling, yelling and screaming, sarcasm and hurtful phrases. Phrases like: “You’re no good”, “There is something wrong with you”, or “Why can’t I get you to understand your thinking is wrong”. Contempt can also be conveyed by how you respond to the person non-verbally. Examples are; eye rolling, looking away, not making eye contact, stomping out of the room. These behaviors, words and phrases send a clear message you do not see your partner as a full participating person in this conversation. The message is meant to demean and take away from the other person’s self-esteem and self-worth.
3. Defensiveness is a way of protecting oneself from a perceived or real attack. People will say they are feeling attacked and have become the victim. Defensiveness is a way to block a verbal attack. Defensiveness leads to flooding of emotions, which leads to blocking out what the other person is saying. This is where blame and hardening of your stance grows and you no longer hear what your partner is saying, you simply defend. This can then lead to escalation of out of control behaviors. Anger is matched with anger, blame with blame, excuses increase and phrases become black and white; “You never feed the dog”,” It’s all your problem”, You never do what I want you to do”, “Yes but”, “It’s not my fault I…” Defensiveness keeps you from solving issues and impedes communication.
4. Stonewalling is withdrawing from the relationship in order to avoid conflict. When the discussion has digressed to yelling or nonproductive communication stonewalling is a way of shutting down the possibility of any resolution. Leaving the room, giving the other person the silent treatment, turning away and focusing on something else, turning up the volume on the TV are clear signs the situation has digressed to disrespect, mistrust, accusations and nonproductively. Sometimes the person stonewalling thinks they are calming things down, in reality it sends a message of displeasure, disconnection, division, complacency, arrogance or self-riotousness. Stonewalling is a behavior that predicts a relationship is in trouble.
Do you experience any of these patterns of behavior regularly in your relationship? If so there are things you can do to change how you communicate so there is an increase in healthy communication and enjoyment in your relationship. Please call us if these behaviors have become too familiar in your relationship.
(Four Patterns that will sink your Relationship: Review of Gottman’s Four Horsemen by Michael T. Halyard, MBA, MS, MFT)