Guest blogger Kate Nesterwitz, LMFT. Read more about her at katenesterwitzlmft.com
According to John Gottman’s research (which spans over 40 years) crucial patterns exist that make or break relationships. Gottman identified the most common negative patterns as the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.” Sound ominous? Well it is. Gottman’s research shows that couples who use these four tactics as a regular communication pattern are doomed for divorce. And this is not hyperbole. With a nearly unheard of 90% accuracy, he was able to predict divorce in couples who showed these patterns.
What are these Four Horsemen?
They are damaging and hurtful ways partners talk to one another. When we look closely at these behaviors, we can easily see why couples who habitually use them can’t sustain love. They are: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.
(This video from The Gottman Institute sums it up most effectively. Have a look.)
Criticizing your partner using “You” statements, accusations, and harsh tones that attack his/her character. This inevitably leads to the second horseman.
A way to deny blame by playing the victim. The likely response to an attack (criticism) is to defend oneself, which really just turns the blame back on your partner. (You can see how criticism and defensiveness play off each other without a good result.)
Taking a position of superiority that looks down on your partner, using eye rolls, sarcasm, sneering, name-calling, hostility and humor that is meant to put someone down. Contempt is possibly the most dangerous of the Four Horsemen. Although we are all guilty of this behavior at times, a pattern of this is sure to destroy your relationship.
Withdrawing from the conversation. This can look like the silent treatment, leaving the house during a fight, or retreating to the bedroom. Stonewalling makes it look like you don’t care about what your partner has to say and that you are ignoring them. But really, it occurs when someone is actually very stressed, scared and doesn’t think saying anything will help.
Do you recognize any of these patterns? We all do these things at times, but they are all hurtful and degrading forms of communication. So what’s the solution?
Mutual respect between partners is necessary for relationships to succeed, and the key to lasting and loving relationships. This includes respect of their humanity, emotions, experiences and pain. Here are positive alternatives to the Four Horsemen.
• The antidote to criticism was explained in my last post: the use of “I” statements. This lets you take responsibility for your own feelings and complaints without attacking the other person, or making it his/her fault. “I” statements look like this:
“I feel…about..and I need…”
The positive need allows for something to actually be done about the complaint, rather than getting stuck in a cycle of attack and defense.
• The antidote to defensiveness is to take some responsibility, even if it’s just for one part of the problem. You can also show empathy and validate your partner’s experience in that moment, instead of going straight to defending yourself.
“I know I haven’t had a lot of patience myself lately…”
“I know you are working hard, too, and this isn’t easy for you…”
• The antidote for contempt is showing respect and refusing to attack or put down your partner, even when you are angry or hurt. Couples that can maintain a general respect and kindness towards their partner in conflict keep their friendship intact and have more success in finding solutions.
• Lastly, the antidote to stonewalling is to take a break. Review Part I of this series to refresh your memory on how to take a “time out” to calm down, let your heart rate return to normal, and then resume the conversation.
Now, this can be easier said that done. Couples with a long history of these patterns may need professional support in order to break these habits and learn new skills. When anger, resentment and hurt have built up over many years, these methods are harder to employ. If you feel stuck in these patterns and see the toll they are taking on your relationship, do not hesitate to call us. We can help you address the underlying anger, put an end to destructive patterns, and teach you new ways to communicate instead. Please contact us with any questions.
In Part III, we’ll discuss making effective repairs and explore the art of compromise.