In my last post I discussed what marriage and relationship expert John Gottman has named “the four horseman of divorce“. Gottman has studied relationships from a scientific perspective for decades so he can identify the traits of successful relationships and also spot what breaks couples up. When Gottman sees criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling in a relationship he knows that a break up is much more likely to occur.
The chances are that you see these four issues in your relationship too. If you are struggling to get along and negativity has crept in then the four horsemen tend to push their way in. All is not lost. You and your partner can turn things around by applying the antidote to these relationship poisons. Here’s an explanation of what they are:
Antidote to Criticism – Complaining
I get that it sounds a bit odd to encourage you to complain more in your relationship but criticism and complaining are worlds apart. When we criticise we use blanket statements that usually include value judgments about our partner. Complaints don’t do that. They specifically target the issue that you are unhappy about and leave your partner in tact as an OK person. Look at these two examples and you can feel the difference:
Criticism: “I asked you to fill the car with petrol so I could use it tonight without having to go to the garage and you have forgotten just like you always do! You’re so selfish, this is typical of you!”
Complaint: “When you use the car and leave it without any petrol I feel angry. Can you fill it up before coming home in future please?”
The critical statement uses “always” as a blanket generalisation (“never” can often be found in criticisms too) and then proceeds to label the partner “selfish” as a blanket judgment. The typical response to such criticism would be defensiveness, because the partner needs to protect him/herself from this personality attack. Defensiveness is the second horseman and just adds more blows to the punch drunk body of the relationship.
The complaint focuses on the issue and the feelings that the complainant felt. It is a great example of what Steiner named an “action/feeling statement”. It also explains to the partner exactly what behaviour they want their partner to do next time. There are no personal attacks and no generalisations. This statement is much more likely to result in an apology, repairing the relationship.
Antidote to Defensiveness – Take Responsibility
Defensive statements find their way into arguments when partners find themselves under attack and feel the need to defend themselves. When we are defensive we are really saying “the problem isn’t me, it’s you”. A defensive answer to the criticism above might be:
“I always fill the car up with petrol and I’m sick of doing it. Anyway, you never asked me to fill it up before I left”.
This is like pouring petrol onto a fire – the argument is only going to get worse to the point where it is impossible to recover.
Instead of being defensive we have to take responsibility for our actions. Steiner talks about the grain of truth in every complaint from your partner in his book “Achieving Emotional Literacy”. There is bound to be some truth in your partner’s complaint so fess up and apologise! When we do this we are adding repair to the argument too, which is likely to deescalate things and sooth your partner.
Antidote to Contempt – Praise and Pride
Gottman states that contempt is the most damaging of the four horsemen. In stable happy relationships the other horsemen may be present in small amounts but there is zero contempt. The antidote is love. Be positive with your partner, praise them whenever you can. Be proud of their achievements and tell them. As I type this it brings in mind my own parents. They have most certainly reached what in Imago therapy is called the “conscious relationship”. Don’t get me wrong, they have their moments and still argue here and there. What strikes me when I’m with them is how positive about each other they are. My mum takes real pride in the things my Dad has done, whether that’s making the dinner or repairing the shed roof. She will sit and tell me all of these achievements with a big smile on her face and the message is very strong that she thinks he’s brilliant! My Dad is also very positive about my Mum and brushes off some of her more annoying habits with “well, that’s just her way”.
Antidote to Stonewalling – Turn into the relationship rather than away
Stonewalling is when we withdraw from our partner, either physically by moving to another room, or emotionally when we close down and stop responding or just say “yeah, yeah, whatever, yeah” as they are talking to us. Instead of doing this the stonewaller needs to self sooth, calm down and stay emotionally connected. “Easier said than done” I hear you say and to a certain extent I agree. What we have to realise though is all of these techniques demand a great deal of effort to achieve. It’s tough to stay positive about your partner when your relationship is under strain, it’s tough to take responsibility for your actions when you are arguing and it’s tough not to withdraw when you feel under attack, but what’s your alternative? If you do the same in your relationship you get the same. If you want a strong worthwhile relationship full of love you have to work for it.
As with all things, you are not going to achieve a perfect relationship overnight. When I deliver couples counselling I will highlight these antidotes as a way of improving the relationship in front of me. You can follow these techniques without a couples therapist too (although working with one is bound to increase your chances of success). As you increase the frequency of these positive behaviours within your relationship you will feel a change. It will become more positive which will add to the good feeling and increase the chances of closeness in the future. Good luck and contact me using the form on my navbar if there is any way you think I can help or you have any questions.