The extensive research of Drs. John and Julie Gottman has provided us with four primary predictors of divorce. They have termed these four main predictors, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and they are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. All relationships have some degree of these characteristics, however, if there are more than one present or one that is unyielding, there will be doubts about the viability of your marriage.
The Four Horsemen:
When you criticize your spouse, it is done in a way that implies something is inherently wrong with him or her. You may also be attacking your partner’s personality or character. The intent is to win the argument or prove your spouse wrong. For instance, saying, “you always…,” “you never…,” or “you’re the type of person who …” or “why are you so …” This will make the spouse feel attacked and is likely to elicit a defensive response. These bad patterns cause you both to not feel heard. You both may start to feel bad about yourselves when you are around each other.
It is critical to make a specific complain about your partner’s behavior and not attack his or her personality. For instance, saying when A happened, I felt B, I need C.
Contempt is the scariest of the bunch. It concerns any statement or behavior, verbal or nonverbal that asserts superiority to your partner.
Examples of such behaviors may be mocking your partner, name-calling, eye rolling, showing hostility, insensitive joking, hurtful sarcasm, sneering in disgust, and so on. It attacks your spouse’s sense of self. It is also intended to put down or emotionally abuse or manipulate him or her.
Couples must work to completely eliminate such behaviors.
A culture of respect, appreciation, tolerance and kindness is a basic requirement in marriage.
Defensiveness arises from a perceived attack with your own counter complaint. It is also another way to act like a victim or not take responsibility for your mistakes. Such behaviors are making excuses, or saying things like, “It’s not my fault…” It can also involve cross-complaining. This is when you match your partner’s complaint or criticism with one of your own. You then ignore what your partner said. Other defensive behaviors are “yes-butting” or simply repeating yourself without paying attention to what your spouse is saying.
You must slow down and try to listen from your partner’s perspective. You do not have to be perfect! Consciously communicate by speaking honestly and listening well. Don’t forget to validate your partner by letting him or her know you get what they are feeling.
Complete withdrawal from communication (and essentially the relationship) as a strategy to avoid conflict is called stonewalling. It may look be physically leaving or completely shutting down. This might be an, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to calm oneself when overwhelmed.
Stonewalling conveys disconnection, disapproval, distancing, and arrogance. Stonewalling might be giving the “silent treatment,” monosyllabic mutterings, changing the subject, storming out.
The antidote to stonewalling is to learn to identify the signs that you or your partner is starting to feel emotionally overwhelmed. It’s a good idea to verbalize that you feel overwhelmed. You can both agree to take a break and that the conversation will resume when you are both calmer.
If you are married or in a serious relationship, you need to learn about the Four Horsemen. There are ways to better control these behaviors in your relationship. After an argument, claim responsibility for your piece in the escalation. What can you learn from it and what can you do about it? There are many things you can do to help reduce tension or deescalate an argument.
For instance, apologize, express your understanding, or demonstrate your concern. There is no good reason to push buttons or purposely escalate the argument.
Virtually all negative interactions with your partner are really a self-perpetuating cycle that thankfully you can exit from. When one of you gets triggered, the other reacts, there is a reaction to the reaction, so on and so forth. Slow things down and self-reflect by figuring out what you might actually be feeling underneath, for instance, you are really hurt when you yell in anger. You need to get comfortable expressing that deeper part of yourself.
All of us have a lot to learn and to benefit from the Gottman's research. But, if you still find the Four Horsemen are ruining your relationship, it’s time to seek out a skilled marriage therapist!
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