The Gottman Institute, nestled in Seattle, Washington, has compiled more than four decades of research to discover the science of why some relationships succeed and others fail. Hooking couples up to devices to collect biofeedback, as well as filming to closely study body language and nonverbal cues, Dr. John Gottman understands the art and science of love.
His research revealed a small troop of red flag interactions which Gottman humorously labeled, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” The four riders? Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. Though all relationships exhibit these from time to time, if seen frequently and intensely, the interactions reveal the relationship’s dying future.
If a couple is being treated by a Gottman Certified therapist, the clinician will assess for the presence of The Four Horsemen, among other things. As more of a coach than a referee or a central figure in the actual communication, the therapist will assist the couple in turning toward one another in a way that is safe and effective. The goal is for a couple peel back the layers of an issue together, reaching the heart of the gridlock and connecting in a meaningful, intimate way. The Four Horseman are often the reason this is not happening.
So how do you stop The Four Horsemen? Becoming aware of them and their remedies is the place to start.
Where there is Criticism, use gentle startup. If a conversation starts harshly, it is not going to end well. Break the habit of blurting out criticism. It’s okay to have a complaint in a relationship or express an unmet need or hurt feeling, but to criticize the other is ineffective and shuts down communication.
A close cousin of Criticism is Contempt, and the antidote is talking about your own needs and feelings. Contempt is criticism taken to a whole new level. It says, “Something is wrong with you. Please stop.” It can come without saying a word-- through eye-rolling or other facial expressions. Contempt can be packaged in sarcasm or in statements such as, “You always…” and “You never….”
When we can talk about our needs and feelings, as opposed to focusing on how someone else is defective, the spirit of our communication will change. Recognizing that something you hate in your spouse might be treasured or accepted by another, leads you to ask, “Why is this a problem for me?” Sharing your feelings, needs, dreams, and desires in a way that doesn’t diminish the other person increases mutual respect and unity even when you have differences.
A third horseman, Defensiveness, obviously shuts down communication and its cure is taking responsibility. Defensiveness implies blocking, stopping and guarding. It makes sense you’ll feel defensive if someone is criticizing you. Even if a partner is making a legitimate complaint, has softened his or her startup and is focusing on individual feelings and needs, one may still feel defensive. However, it’s better to say, “I am feeling defensive” than to be defensive. Recognizing this feeling can help you mindfully take a different approach. It does not mean conceding and shutting down your own voice for the sake of the other, but it does mean owning the relationship together. When we see the relationship as its own entity, we are each 100% responsible for taking care of the relationship.
So what does it mean to take responsibility for the relationship? It’s processing the other person’s complaint something like this: “Wow, he really is upset! I wonder what he is needing? What is he feeling?” It is crawling into the other person’s skin and really understanding it from his or her perspective. We don’t have to agree with our partner’s experience, but we can recognize it is legitimate, even if we see it differently. When we do this, we remember we’re on the same team and that our relationship is valuable. Listening and validating the other implies the other’s needs are as important as our own. They are not MORE valuable and we don’t have to diminish and swallow our needs to get along. With the view that there are two different perspectives of reality in a relationship, we can take responsibility for the relationship in a way that is not burdensome, resentful or defensive.
The last horseman is Stonewalling and the solution is physiological soothing. A person stonewalls in a relationship when s/he is feeling flooded emotionally. Overwhelmed by the conflict, or fearing engagement is going to end badly, one distances his/herself, detaching emotionally in an effort to preserve self or the relationship. The other person may interpret the withdrawal as not caring and turn up the volume, creating a distance-pursuer interaction.
To detour stonewalling and start physiological soothing (the goal is always to turn toward, not away from each other), say something such as, “I am flooded and am shutting down,” and include a statement of commitment to talk about it, such as, “I want to be able to talk about things. Can we try again after the kids go to bed?” As the other person may see this as procrastinating or avoiding, a conversation may need to happen initially identifying this pattern of stonewalling and agreeing about a way to stay engaged by giving the other person a break. If the “wanting to engage” partner understands that talking when you are flooded is useless and unhelpful, s/he will hopefully be on board. Understanding that the other person cares deeply can also be eye-opening, as one may have made an assumption that the other one doesn’t care
Gaining control over The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse can determine if you are a “master or disaster in marriage.” Instead of Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling, aim for softened startup, expressing your own needs and feelings, taking responsibility, and physiological soothing. These tactics may significantly help some couples, but others may need more support in implementing new strategies. Seeking out a Gottman Certified therapist is recommended for those struggling to effectively manage conflict.
Jill M. Lillard, MA LPC is a member of The Gottman Referral Network and provides services locally at Lifesong for Growth & Wellness. www.findyourlifesong.com