Relationship guru John Gottman outlines four destructive patterns that will sink your relationship in his 1994 book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. Although most of the couples he studied for his 1994 book were heterosexual couples, Gottman is also a pioneer in studying same-sex relationships and the same patterns described here are just as applicable for gay and lesbian relationships.
According to Gottman, anger and conflict are not what cause relationships to fail. Anger and conflict can actually be good because they help clear the air and open channels of communication. Gottman says anger and conflict can be a problem, however, if the anger or conflict involves Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling — what Gottman calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
Gottman spent over 20 years researching over 2000 couples and discovered that these four major emotional reactions– “The Four Horsemen”– were predictive of whether a marriage would succeed or fail. These are ways of interacting that sabotage your efforts to communicate with your partner. Gottman considers Contempt to be the most important for determining whether a relationship will survive. Gottman says as each horseman arrives, it paves the way for the next horseman to come and wreak havoc on your relationship.
The first step in eliminating the Horsemen is for you and your partner to recognize when these patterns are happening and then you can learn to change them. The good news is there are remedies can help you drive the horsemen out of your relationship. The first Horseman is Criticism.
1.) Criticism is overgeneralized complaints that attack your partner’s character.
Unlike complaints, Criticism tends to overgeneralize, and entails attacking your partner’s personality or character, rather than focusing on specific behaviors you don’t like. Complaints, on the other hand, are healthy–a complaint is a specific statement of anger or irritation about a specific behavior. For example, “I’m angry at you for not cleaning you your mess like you promised.” Airing your complaint (rather than suppressing it) makes the relationship stronger in the long run.
When complaints are not acted on by the other partner (not taken seriously, ignored, forgotten, or suppressed), the path is created for the horsemen Criticism to gallop in and take hold. Criticism makes one partner right and one partner wrong, and leads to blame and shame. Also, Criticism is over generalized and directed at your partner’s personality or character. For example, “You never follow through on your promises.”
Criticism uses phrases like: “You never, ” “You always,” “You should,” “Why don’t you ever,” and “Why are you always?” Criticism inevitably puts people on the defensive and invites in the Horseman of Defensiveness, because the other partner feels they need to defend their character.
2.) Contempt is hostile words and body language aimed at psychologically abusing your partner.
Holding onto resentment inevitably leads to Contempt. Contempt is even more destructive than Criticism. Contempt involves directing hostile words and body language at your partner. These hostile words and body language are meant to psychologically harm your partner and attacks their sense of self.
Contempt includes openly insulting your partner, disrespecting them, and tearing down their self-esteem. Verbal examples of Contempt include putdowns, insults and name calling, yelling and screaming, mocking, sarcasm, ridiculing, and hurtful teasing. Phrases like “You are such a piece of work,” “There’s something wrong with you,” “You are so selfish,” are examples of Contempt. Name calling like: “lazy,” “fat,” and “stupid” are also examples.
Contempt can also be conveyed nonverbally in body language. Examples of nonverbal Contempt include includes rolling your eyes, looking away, not making eye contact, or sneering.
As you can see, Contempt can hurt a person’s sense of self and are extremely detrimental. This continues to leave issues unresolved making you angrier, making you feel hurt and extremely negative towards your partner.
3.) Defensiveness is shielding oneself from a perceived attack and seeing oneself as the victim.
Of course, it is only natural for a person to feel defensive when they are being insulted, called names, or treated with contempt–but doing so inevitably invites in the Horsemen of Defensiveness. Defensiveness involves blocking a verbal attack and seeing yourself as the victim.
When you get defensive, you experience anxiety or a flooding of emotions, which makes it difficult for you to tune into what your partner is saying. Defensiveness also leads to escalation. When couples get defensive and it escalates, couples can get out of control.
Defensiveness includes matching anger with anger, blame with blame, hardening your stance, making excuses, or denying responsibly. For example, one partner may say “You never feed the dog,” and the other partner says, “You never feed the cat.” Instead of listening to what is being said, you toss it back to your partner saying “it’s your problem,” deny responsibility, or play the victim role. People also communicate their defensiveness through a rigid body posture.
Verbal examples include, “Yes, but,” “So,” “It’s not my fault I…,” “It wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t…,” “That’s not true, you’re the one who…,” “That’s not fair, at least I didn’t…,” “That may be true, but you do the same thing,” and “I wouldn’t have that problem if you didn’t…”
Even if you feel like a “victim” being “victimized,” or even if you feel that you are right in defending yourself, or even if you are right–instead of helping, defensiveness prevents you from solving the problem at hand and further impedes communication.
4. Stonewalling is withdrawing from the relationship in order to avoid conflict.
When a person is tired of all the relentless Criticism, Contempt, and Defensiveness, at some point they shut down and refuse to respond. This is when the Fourth Horseman Stonewalling enters the picture.
Stonewalling happens when a person turns into a stone wall: the stonewaller withdraws from the other partner to avoid a fight. This can happen in the middle of a discussion, when one partner just shuts down and stops responding to their partner. With their silence, the stonewaller is sending a message to their partner that they want to disengage and avoid any meaningful interaction. Stonewalling can also happen when you remove yourself physically without communicating to your partner.
When a person stonewalls, they are exiting the relationship and avoiding solving the problem at hand. Also, when a person stonewalls, they are also not listening, the conflicts become silent and withdrawing becomes a hostile act. This can lead to the other partner attacking or telling the other partner that they are feeling shut out.
Sometimes partners have the misconception that they are calming things down by stonewalling, but Stonewalling suggests displeasure, disconnection, division, compliancy, arrogance, and self-righteousness.
When Stonewalling becomes a predictable pattern, the relationship can be near its end and is need of immediate intervention. Examples of Stonewalling include silence, changing the subject, talking or muttering to ourselves, and removing ourselves physically.
Healing your Relationship: Eliminating the Horsemen
Do you recognize any of these patterns in your relationship? The first step is to recognize patterns, and then you can work to change them. Here are some suggestions on patterns that will help rid your relationship of the Horsemen.
Chill Out! Gottman says that calming down is the precise physiological opposite of emotional flooding (where a person is overwhelmed with intense emotion.) When a person is flooded, their body is inundated by adrenalin, and the electrical signals from their limbic system (the part of the brain that deals with emotions) transmit twice as fast as the electrical signals from their neo cortex (the part of the brain that handles reasoning). Therefore, when you are flooded with emotion, it is not the best time to be handling a relationship conflict!
You can both agree to take a time out. If you take a time out, set up an “appointment” to talk to your partner to talk about your issues. It’s also good to learn and practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, yoga, exercise, so you can relax first and then have a talk.
In addition, speak Non-Defensively, by not being defensive in your communication. Gottman says the best antidote for defensive communication is to decide to think positively about your partner and bring praise and admiration back into your relationship. Be direct and ask for what you want directly from your partner, rather than using the Four Horsemen (Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling) to try to get what you want. Also, make your complaints and requests specific to a given situation, and communicate how that made you feel. (Remember not to use never, always, or should when communicating complaints or it is Criticism.)
Don’t hold onto resentments or it can lead to Contempt. Air your grievances, make a request, and communicate how you feel–then let it go! Not all requests are going to be are going to be honored, so you may need to compromise to get what you need rather than what you want. Tell your partner how you feel, by saying “I feel…” For example, “I’m feeling disconnected from you right now,” NOT “I’m feeling like you’re a big dope.”
Treat your partner how you want to be treated: you don’t want to be treated with Contempt, so don’t treat your partner that way. (That means no putdowns, insults or name calling, yelling or screaming, mocking, sarcasm, ridiculing, or hurtful teasing.) Also, keep blame out of your discussion. (For example, “that’s your fault.”) Don’t analyze your partner’s personality– leave that for their therapist. If your partner is out of control, you should disengage by saying, “I can see you are too upset to talk,” or “I am feeling frustrated and need a time-out,” and make an appointment to talk to each other for the next day.
Also it is important to validate your partner: Tell your partner that what they are saying makes sense to you, and you understand why they would feel that way. Validating doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with your partner, but validating will make your partner feel heard. Try reflective listening where you repeat back what your partner says, and then your partner repeats back what you say. For example, “What I heard you say is X, am I correct?” Gottman says that validation is actually a remedy for Criticism, Contempt and Defensiveness.
Take responsibility for yourself and your feelings. Don’t blame your partner for how you feel; only you are responsible for your feelings. Also ask yourself “What can I do to help this situation” and “What is the lesson I can learn here?” Be open to giving your partner an apology. Apologies don’t cost anything and the rewards are immense. And don’t follow you’re apology with “but.”
Learn to enjoy your partner and be grateful for your relationship. Gottman says the thing that separates couples who are content with those who are miserable, is that healthy couples have five positive interactions for every one negative interaction with each other. Learn to be cognizant of your interactions.
The way to rid your relationship of the Four Horsemen forever is to keep practicing communicating without them. Practice, Practice, Practice! Remember the Four Horsemen want to destroy your relationship. The more you practice communicating without the Horsemen (Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling), the stronger your relationship will be.