Dr. John and July Gottman, the brilliant researchers of relationships, inspire the following Post. They identified four behaviors that are guaranteed to damage, if not simply destroy our relationships. Knowing of these four horsemen and finding their antidotes is a must if we want our relationship to survive and thrive; and avoid becoming one of the over fifty percent of relationships, which are heading towards separation or divorce.
The Gottmans’ research emphasize that the problem is not that couple argue–all couples do. The real challenge is how couples manage their quarrels and how they repair after their fights. Let’s clarify that “managing” and arguing doesn’t mean “resolving” the dispute. Couples who know how to fight also know when to stop, so that their argument doesn’t damage their relationship. Hence, the fighting style a couple uses determines the health and longevity of their relationship. This is why it is imperative for couples to learn the skills that will allow them to down-regulate escalating arguments and stop their destructive patterns of relating. The health of their relationship depends on it. Below are the Four Horsemen, and their antidotes.
The difference between a complaint and a criticism is that the complaint focuses on a specific behavior, while a criticism attacks the character of the person.
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The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame. Talk about your feelings using I statements and then express a positive need. What do you feel? What do you need?
- Criticism: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish and uncaring.”
- Antidote to Criticism: “I’m feeling like I don’t matter as much as you do. I’m feeling left out right now. Can we talk about what is going on for me? I had a rough day and I’m feeling alone and a bit scared.”
Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand. Defensiveness is a less than subtle way of blaming our partner. When we are defensive we are, in effect, saying that the problem isn’t with us, but with the other person. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.
- Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late, it’s your fault.”
- Antidote: “You are right, part of this is my problem, I loose track of time and I always forget about traffic. And I think I feel anxiety about leaving the house. I want to be more accountable for my part in this and I commit to be more responsible about time.”
Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction. The antidote is to practice physiological self-soothing. The first step of physiological self-soothing is to stop the conflict discussion. If we keep going, we’ll find ourself exploding at our partner or imploding (stonewalling); both actions will keep us stuck and damage our relationship. As part of the antidote, we need to let our partner know that we’re feeling flooded and need to take a break. That break should last at least twenty minutes, since it takes that long before our body physiologically calms down. It’s crucial that during this time we avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this $h*! anymore”) and innocent victimhood (“Why is he/she always picking on me?”). During our time off, it behooves us to do something soothing and distracting, like listening to music or exercising.
- Stonewalling: The internal dialogue of a stonewaller goes something like this: “I see his/her lips moving but I don’t care… I just want to go watch the game and be done with this stupid argument… Don’t say anything, you know it’s going to make things worse… Just say yes, maybe he/she’ll shut up… How much longer do I have to deal with this?”
- Antidote: “Hon, I’m getting flooded right now and I’m starting to shut down, and I don’t want to do this to us. Please give me 20 and I’ll be back and we can take it from there. I’m just not in a good space to keep at it right now and I don’t want to disrespect you, and do or say something stupid I’ll regret”. Or, “We have to stop now otherwise it’s going to get nasty and I don’t want that, at all.”
In one of the Gottmans’ longitudinal research where couples were hooked on heart monitors and blood pressure devices during their arguments, the researchers interrupted couples after fifteen minutes of arguing, and told them they needed to adjust the equipment. They asked them not to talk about their issue, but just to read magazines for half an hour. When the couples started talking about their issue again, their heart rates were significantly lower, and their interaction more positive and productive.
Contempt is by far the greatest predictor of separation and divorce. Contempt must be eliminated at all cost if your relationship is to survive and thrive. Contemptuous statements express a relative position of superiority from the partner. The displays of contempt include using sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. The antidote is building a culture of appreciation and respect and, again, avoiding contemptuous attitudes and statements at all cost.
- Contempt: “You’re an idiot… You are so stupid… Did you look at yourself… Yea right, as if whatever you said matter…”
- Antidote: “I’m proud of the way you handled your boss today and I know it was really hard for you to stand up to him/her… I think what you just said was very sharp!”
If one or more of the four horsemen have entered your relationship, please take this seriously. If Contempt has invaded your relationship, I invite you to take this VERY seriously. The lack of respect will erode the foundation of your relationship, and the longer you wait, the more damage contempt will do to you both individually, and to your relationship. Separation and divorce is atrociously painful, and in countless cases can be avoided when there is no room for the Four Horsemen in your relationship.
May your relationship thrive!
C. Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©