Introducing the Four Horsemen

No, this isn’t a religious sermon, but it is an important message for anyone in a committed relationship.

In previous blogs, we have delved into several factors that make marriages fail, succeed, and flourish. Building off that work, it is important to examine some of the other major challenges that face married couples. While this focuses on marriages, as always, these principles can apply to all sorts of interpersonal relationships.

Dr. John Gottman, who has spent years studying relationships, warns of the “Four Horsemen,” that can consistently spell doom for marriage. While we discussed one, contempt, in a previous article, he describes the remaining horsemen as criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Criticism, which we touched on only briefly, constitutes attacks on your partner’s character, often involving ad hominem attacks. Importantly, Dr. Gottman distinguishes between “criticism” and what he describes as simple critiques or complaints.

Essentially, a criticism involves telling your partner that there is something wrong with them, while critiques and complaints presents concerns over specific behaviors or, at their best, offer positive requests for certain behaviors. For example, contrast this criticism: “How can you leave dirty clothes everywhere? Why do you have to be so messy?” with the complaint “Could you try to pick up your dirty clothes?”

The former example involved actually attacking one’s partner, while the latter was framed in the context of an active request. The critical difference, then, between criticism and complaints rests in fostering an acceptance of each other’s needs and in preventing an atmosphere of distrust or conflict. It is in those toxic, criticism-filled, atmospheres that the other Horsemen, such as defensiveness and stonewalling thrive.

Defensiveness is probably all too familiar to each of us. This horseman arises when we face perceived criticism and consider these attacks to be unfair or unjust. Then the defensive partner will attempt to retaliate by lashing out in response, turning the situation around on their significant other.

Building on the example discussed earlier, this could result in the retort that “You are just as messy! Why don’t you clean up more, if it bothers you so much?” Often, this is intended to mitigate the criticism and resolve the situation, but instead it usually fails to end the conflict, perpetuating tension and continuing to undermine trust in the relationship.

Similarly, the final horseman, stonewalling, is similar in some ways to defensiveness, except that it involves a complete withdrawal from the interaction. The stonewalling partner will respond to a criticism, or even valid complaint, by simply shutting down and refusing to respond or address the issue. This can involve leaving the room or completely ignoring your partner.

So, we’ve outlined these apocalyptic relationship habits, but what is there to do about them? The first step, of course, is properly recognizing their signs, but Dr. Gottman offers further advice on managing them properly. He emphasizes the notion of “management” over “resolution,” because these conflicts will inevitably occur, but it is important to better handle them when they do arise.

We’ve already discussed how criticism can be converted into valid complaints, but what about the other two? Rather than becoming defensiveness, we have to work to take responsibility for a given problem. Instead of shifting blame in the dirty clothes example, the partner ought to respond positively and help clean up the house. This needn’t involve taking complete blame, but requires at least acknowledging a sense of shared responsibility.

Finally, sometimes distance from a stressful situation may be necessary, which is the impulse that drives stonewalling. Instead of withdrawal, however, it may be important to agree on taking some time apart to engage in a soothing activity. Just fifteen minutes of time alone can allow couples to revisit issues with compassion instead of anger and frustration.

While these horseman are likely to be constant challenges for any couple, proper management can go a long way towards preserving healthy and happy relationships.

For more information on Dr. Gottman’s relationship advice, see our past blogs here and here.

Valentine’s Day and Kindness

As many couples celebrate Valentine’s Day with extravagant dinners, elaborate bouquets, and tasty chocolates, it’s time to consider what can truly make those romantic moments last.

In our previous blog, we discussed the factors that make marriages fail and reviewed some research on how to avoid those mishaps. It is now important to turn to the question of how to make marriages actively succeed.

This is a particularly important question, given how uncommon truly healthy marriages are. According to the psychologist Ty Tashiro, only about three in ten people who get married spend the rest of their lives in happy and healthy relationships.

This may strike many of you as an extremely troubling statistic. We would like to see marriages as idyllic journeys off into the sunset, and it may be depressing to revise this notion. You are not alone. In fact, psychologists like Dr. John Gottman were inspired by skyrocketing divorce rates to learn more about the nature of happy marriages.

Dr. Gottman found that mutual attitudes of kindness are key to preserving happy relationships. These expressions of kindness proved to be effective predictors for satisfaction and marital stability, both Dr. in Dr. Gottman’s work and in other independent research.

There are two ways to look at marital kindness. Either it is a fixed trait that you simply have or don’t have, or it is more like a skill or muscle that is strengthened by repeated use. Dr. Gottman and his wife, Julie Gottman, argue that the most successful relationships are preserved by those who see kindness as a skill to be cultivated. But how can we develop this skill?

In working to answer this question, Dr. Gottman and Dr. Robert Levenson, his colleague at the University of Washington, set up the “Love Lab” in 1986. During a series of studies, they observed the behavior of newly married couples while also monitoring their physiological responses by connecting them to electrodes.

They found that less successful couples showed marked differences in physiology from happier ones. Essentially, some couples exhibited signs of fear and anxiety while interacting with their spouse, constantly preparing for a fight or conflict. This even extended to what ought to have been boring, mundane conversations and was measured with physiological factors such as sweating and heart rate.

The researchers concluded that the more successful couples thrived because they had cultivated a sense of mutual trust, understanding that they could let their guard down and open up. In subsequent research, Dr. Gottman found that this sort of climate must be cultivated, like kindness itself, through repeated acts of emotional connection with your partner.

He observed that couples often offer “bids” for connection, soliciting their partner’s response to happy news or simply observations on the world around them. Couples that accept these “bids” by responding with interest and kindness can cultivate a sense of trust. In fact, he found that 94 percent of couples that work to accept each other’s’ “bids” will stay together over the long-term.

Kindness comes into play by training yourself to recognize and accept these bids and becomes especially necessary when exhaustion or conflict makes this that much more difficult. By wielding and developing this skill, Dr. Gottman’s research provides a path forward to become or remain in one of those happy, healthy relationships that we all hope to have.

For past blogs on Dr. Gottman’s research check out our blogs here and here.

Why Marriages Fail

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Why do some marriages last and others fall apart?

This is a question that troubles countless people who may be worried about their parents divorcing, their spouse leaving them, or that an upcoming marriage won’t last. While there are no easy answers, Dr. John Gottman’s research can help shed light on this critical question.

As anybody in a relationship knows, sometimes major fights stem from seemingly insignificant interactions. Maybe one person bought the wrong milk at the store, failed to hang up a coat, or simply seemed distant in conversation. This can lead to a sharp criticism, spiraling into a significant conflict.

But why is it that these minor instances can explode in such a fashion? Often, they can just be the result of miscommunication or of a lack of understanding of the other’s feelings. The real problem, as Dr. Gottman describes it, arises when contempt enters the equation.

Contempt arises from unresolved negative thoughts about your spouse or the, perhaps subconscious, belief that you are superior. Often, these underlying feelings manifest themselves in the form of overly aggressive reactions, such as hostile humor, name-calling, or body language such as eye-rolling.

Not only do these reactions turn an otherwise minor conflict into an intractable war, but they also lead to more conflict down the line, making this behavior a leading cause of failed marriages. In fact, contempt can even lead to declined physical health, resulting in infectious illnesses like colds and the flu!

Dr. Gottman’s research, demonstrates just how dangerous these attitudes can be to the health of a relationship. While partnering with Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson, the two researchers studied 79 Midwestern couples over the course of fourteen years. This 2002 study found that contempt, in addition to related behaviors, predicted divorce with 93 percent accuracy.

In a more recent study of 373 couples, Dr. Gottman found that acts of contempt and general disregard in the first year of marriage were strongly related to future divorces.

Given the acute danger of such underlying behaviors, it is especially critical to be mindful and aware of them. Dr. Gottman attempts to provide lessons that can reduce the catastrophic impact of contempt. Instead of focusing on the negative behaviors of a partner, for example, he recommends working to cultivate a sense of appreciation and respect for positive behaviors.

While this can take time and effort, it is important to see how any given interaction helps pave the way towards this sense of appreciation. It is helpful to consider other, related, relationship killers such as criticism.

In the case of criticism, he distinguishes critiques of the person’s behavior from their character, urging couples to avoid criticisms of character in favor of expressing positive desires. Rather than accusing a partner of some deficiency, one ought to express an active desire. This can involve pointedly asking for your spouse’s attention, rather than accusing them of never listening.

For more information on Dr. Gottman’s research, see our past blogs here and here.

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