In any relationship we are bound to have differences with our partner. This is all the more true when we’re in a close, committed relationship which means a great deal to us – so much is at stake. Given no two people are exactly alike, our goal should be to develop skills in the area of constructive conflict, rather than trying to get rid of disagreements (which are not necessarily indicative of a relationship in trouble). The key is to use our areas of difference as opportunities to know our partners and ourselves better, while also communicating how much we value our relationship and are committed to its growth and betterment.
John and Julie Gottman, psychotherapists and developers of the Gottman Method of couples therapy, state that they can predict with 93% accuracy if a married couple will still be married in five years. The Gottmans have achieved this by inviting couples to stay for a weekend in their Love Lab apartment, where all of the couple’s conversations and actions (aside from those in the bathroom and bedroom) are recorded. The Gottmans then painstakingly listen to and analyze elements of the couples’ conversations. After more than 30 years and observation of over 3000 married couples in the Love Lab, the Gottmans have created a list of communication styles termed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that, unless eliminated or at least greatly diminished through practicing the antidotes, point to a relationship that is in peril of ending in divorce.
The Four Horseman and their antidotes:
Horseman #1: Criticism, or complaining about our partner in a manner that implies a flaw in our partner’s character. For example, “You never consider my needs” or “You are so rude.” Such criticism generally results in the partner feeling threatened at this moment and possibly becoming defensive. Consequently, neither you nor your partner are likely to feel heard or appreciated.
The antidote: Using A Gentle Start-Up, where we express our feelings and then state a positive need. For example, “When you come home from work and talk only about your day, without asking how my day went, I feel hurt and as if I don’t matter to you. I would like it if you would show interest in how I’m doing.” When we have a grievance, that grievance contains a wish. By stating our wish, we offer our partner the chance to be the hero or heroine and fulfill that wish.
Horseman #2: Defensiveness. We ward off a perceived attack or portray ourselves as an innocent victim. For example, “You are always complaining” or “You just don’t understand how demanding my job is.” Defensiveness merely intensifies the dysfunctional communication. In essence, to quote the Gottmans, we are reacting with an attitude of “What the hell is this?!?”, rather than a curious stance of “What is this?”
The antidote: By taking responsibility for our part in the situation, we demonstrate that we can see our partner’s point of view. For example, if we choose to be curious rather than defensive, we say something along the line of “I see how you might feel as if I’m not interested in how your day went” or “Yes, I can act a bit obsessed by my job at times”. In every situation, there are a number of ways of looking at the issue, and it’s imperative that both people feel heard and understood. Note that understanding and validating your partner’s perspective does not necessarily mean that you agree with them, but that you understand your partner’s point of view.
Horseman #3: Contempt, in which we indicate through our words or behavior that we feel better than and disdainful of our partner. Examples include looking at the ceiling (or anywhere but at our partner), looking at our partner with a “You have to be kidding me!” expression, curling our lip, or making insults. According to The Gottmans, contempt tops the list of the four horsemen when it comes to danger. When we scoff at or ridicule our partner, we effectively destroy any sense of security, affection, respect, and solidarity in our relationship.
The antidote: Expressing that we appreciate our partner and speaking about our feelings and needs (see antidote to Criticism), rather than placing the blame on our partner. Even in the middle of a confrontation, it’s possible for us to say, “I understand”, “I love you”, or “Thank you for…”. Making kind and reassuring physical contact by holding our partner’s hand or touching his/her arm is another way of showing that we are an ally and friend, rather than an enemy.
Horseman #4: Stonewalling. We pull back emotionally from the conversation. We might also exit the room or turn our back on our partner. The majority of Stonewallers are men, but women are capable of this attitude, too. With Stonewalling and withdrawing, our attempt is to calm ourselves, to manage feeling of overwhelm, but our partner usually interprets our behavior as us not caring or as rejecting their overtures at connection. Our partner may then increase his or her demands to communicate, which often leads us to retreat further. Not a recipe for harmony.
The antidote: Developing awareness of when we’ve shifted into emotion overload mode and learning methods to soothe ourselves and our partner. The Gottmans state that when our heart rate increases to 100 beats per minutes or more (or, for athletes, 80 beats per minute or more), we are in a state of Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA) and cannot effectively hear our partner or respond to them constructively. To gauge whether or not we’re in DPA, we can put a finger on our wrist or carotid artery (found below the jaw on the side of the neck), count our pulse for 15 seconds, and multiple by four. This may not always be feasible during an intense discussion, but it’s possible more often than you might expect. Another benefit of this check is the opportunity to pause, which can help us to regroup and remind us what’s most important to us.
Whether or not you check your pulse, learn to recognize when you’re agitated. Feeling overheated, anxious, threatened, nauseous, dizzy, or faint can all be clues that you’re in a state of DPA. Make an agreement with your partner that if one of you reaches this point, you will temporarily interrupt the conversation to do some deep, slow breathing, guided visualization, a walk around the block, or another technique to center and calm yourself. Your partner would probably benefit from doing the same. Do make a plan to resume the conversation at a specific time, such as in an hour or the next day, so that your calming technique does not serve as an excuse to avoid continuing the discussion indefinitely.
In essence, the antidotes to the Four Horsemen are ways in which you remind both your partner and yourself that your relationship is of great importance to you and that you are committed to working together as a team. You can agree to disagree, if that’s the case, your mutual goal is to reach solutions that support the good of your union.