Relationships–we all have them, whether they’re with spouses, colleagues, friends, or family. But they’re not always so simple; our emotions, experiences and upbringing can all affect the way we relate with others, and consequently, can determine how well these relationships work. Imagine if there were specific signals we could look for, that told us where our connections are headed… Well, it turns out there are, thanks to one very passionate psychologist.
Dr. Gottman, co-founder of the Gottman Institute, has devoted 40-odd years of his life to studying family and relationship psychology, and what his studies have found is nothing short of extraordinary. His many years of work in the field have led him to discover exactly which emotions will ruin a relationship, as well as a very refined and accurate way of identifying these very emotions in an individual’s face, tone of voice and body language.
Dr. Gottman has worked with over three thousand couples in what has been coined the ‘Love Lab.’ This is where he observes them discussing an issue within the relationship, and within a matter of minutes, he can predict with 90% accuracy whether or not they will last. All because his extensive work has led him to discovering that relationship failure comes down to four key emotions, which he calls the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’
Here’s what they are, how to identify them, and how you can deal with them, so you can maintain healthy and harmonious relationships in all areas of your life.
‘The Four Horsemen’
Criticism is rarely constructive. When one person criticises another, they are actually attacking that person’s character, which of course is never healthy. An example of this would be: “You’re so selfish! You never think about anyone else!” Instead, we should make complaints that express how we feel instead of throwing criticisms.
Try this: A great method for clearly communicating what is upsetting you, without making them feel attacked, is to begin with “I feel… , I want/need… , I’m willing… “.
“You do this, you do that!” kind of criticisms immediately put a person in defence mode; creating stress and diminishing their ability to participate in a productive and cooperative way. But if we connect with what we are feeling as a result of their actions/words/behaviours and communicate that instead (using “I feel… , I want/need… , I’m willing…”), it opens up space for understanding and conversation.
Once we’ve communicated what we are feeling, we can then express our need from that person. This allows the person to hear what you need them to hear, instead of reacting, retaliating or shutting down. And finally, when you end with a compromise, it allows that person to meet you in the middle, so they know you are a team and it’s not all on them.
For example: A teenager fails to contact his/her mother when he arrives at his destination, to let her know he is safe. Instead of saying:
“Why didn’t you call me when you arrived, like I told you to? I’ve been worried sick! You never do what I ask!”
Instead, she could say: “I feel sick with worry when I haven’t heard from you after a long day of travel. I need to know that you’re safe, because I love you. Even if it’s just a text.”
Dr. Gottman has found contempt to be the number one predictor of relationship breakdown. Someone who communicates with contempt attacks and belittles the other person from a place of superiority. Their words portray scorn, disdain, or disgust.
Ellie Lisitsa, from The Gottman Institute, says:
When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean. Treating others with disrespect and mocking them with sarcasm are forms of contempt. So are hostile humor, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling and sneering. In whatever form, contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you’re disgusted with him or her.
It’s so toxic that it’s been proven to make people sick more often because it weakens the immune system. It is the dark horse of the four horsemen, and the one that needs turning around if you want to save your relationship. It may not be easy, but it can be done.
Try this: Dissolving contempt in relationships requires building a culture of admiration and fondness. This can be done by reconnecting with your past, that is, your relationship in its early days. If you’re having trouble connecting with why you fell in love with each other (or simply, what you love about the person, if it’s not a romantic relationship), you may need to seek professional help, but often, revisiting the love that people felt for each other helps reconnect them, allowing to approach issues as a team.
Defensiveness is a common response to criticism. We’ve all done it. Defending ourselves by firing excuses at the accuser makes us think we are getting them off our back, but in actual fact, it’s the opposite. Defensiveness turns the blame onto the other person, which of course, rarely has a desirable outcome. Instead, our partner feels like they are not being heard or taken seriously, and so the vicious cycle of blame inflates and the conflict remains unresolved.
Try this: When you notice yourself rising to your own defence, take a moment to see where you can instead take responsibility for at least part of the issue at hand. Accepting responsibility where necessary immediately diffuses the finger-pointing. Besides, none of us are perfect, so owning our nuances helps others to own theirs, and moves communication forward effectively and harmoniously.
Stonewalling is when someone completely shuts down and looks for an exit from the situation or conflict; be that leaving, tuning out of the conversation, or engaging in obsessive behaviour. It happens as a result of overwhelm and quickly becomes a habit. It causes the person who is being stonewalled to try harder to communicate because they feel like they’re being ignored. This can lead to extreme frustration and simply doesn’t get anyone anywhere.
Try this: If someone is stonewalling you, there are some things you need to do. First–stop. Take a break from the interaction as soon as you feel yourself reaching that boiling point. If this behaviour is common between you and your partner, you could establish a ‘safe’ word that lets each other know when you need to disengage. Physiologically, your body takes twenty minutes to calm down from a situation like this, so make sure you take at least that long.
In this time, practise self-soothing. This means refraining from thoughts of righteous indignation (“How dare they say that to me!”) or victimhood (“Why do they always do this to me?”) and instead listen to calming music, go for a short walk in nature, or read a book. Do something that will take you out of the situation, physically, emotionally and mentally.
Once you’ve both had a chance to cool off, you should be able to come together again with clearer thoughts and less emotional charge. This should allow you to express and communicate yourselves more effectively in order to solve the problem.
Stonewalling is typically the final behaviour following criticism, contempt and defensiveness. So if either you or your partner are stonewalling, it’s likely that the other three horsemen have made an appearance too.
As we know, awareness is always the first step in creating change. If we can recognise what we are doing–or experiencing–early enough, and implement the right actions to dissolve these destructive behaviours, we have a good chance at salvaging–and strengthening–our relationships.
Dr. Gottman reminds us:
…the really important thing to keep in mind is that even in happy, stable, and successful marriages and relationships, the four horsemen all occur. No couple is perfect! The difference is that in those marriages they don’t occur as frequently, and when they do, those couples are more effective at repairing them.
For more information about The Four Horsemen and Dr. Gottman’s work, visit the Gottman Institute.