What Happy Couples Know

From the work of the foremost researcher on relationships, Dr. John Gottman comes the concept of the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse of a relationship. I first studied with John Gottman and the Gottman Institute in 2001 and I love his work.

Over many years, Dr. Gottman analyzed thousands of couples, watching how they navigated disagreements and developed the idea of the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse of a relationship. The horsemen are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. As you might imagine, these concepts are absolutely related to how people behave with each other. They are the qualities that send some relationships into a downward spiral. Happy couples build on their understanding of these behaviors, working to shift how they interact with each other.

Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling

Let’s say that we find ourselves an argument over how we load the dishwasher. And, we know this isn’t a huge issue, yet this little non-important issue leads to disrespect, calling names, tones of exasperation, nagging, criticism or contempt in any form, it triggers defensiveness. Since we both want to feel safe at any cost, if one of us feels attacked, we find a defensive strategy to stay safe. Maybe we shut down, or perhaps we catch fire and explode. Either way, it’s a demonstration that we no longer feel safe and we need to protect ourselves. As soon as that occurs, conversations tend to spiral into dark and ugly places. The longer these little moments continue, the more often we have these tiffs, the more distance is felt between people. Here is an example of one of these arguments evolving into the 4 Horsemen.

A 4 Horseman Argument 

Person 1, “I have to do everything around the house, why don’t you ever help me?” (Criticism)
Person 2 responds, “You are ridiculous! I help out all the time, plus I do all the things you don’t like to do. It’s not like you help me either, you know!” (Defensiveness, Criticism & Contempt)
Person 1 quips, “What haven’t I helped with? You’re making things up to avoid taking responsibility. Do you mean to lie on purpose?” (Defensiveness, Criticism & Contempt)
Person 2 annoyed, “Totally unfair, you do that all the time, you try and make everything my fault.” (Defensiveness & Criticism)
Person 1, “It’s not my fault if the shoe fits.” (Contempt)
Person 2, “What did you say? Seriously, there you go again. You are so condescending, I swear.” (Defensiveness & Contempt)
Person 1 with the eye roll, “Right, I’m condescending when I point out the truth, I can never tell you anything.” (Contempt)
Person 2, “Never tell me anything? You can’t even imagine all the things I can’t tell you!” (Defensiveness & Criticism)
Person 1, “Oh yeah, like what? You don’t care until I say something. I have to bring up every issue and then you get mad at me. You’re such a jerk.” (Defensiveness, Criticism, & Contempt)
Person 2, “Of course you’re right your highness. You always find ways to blame me, then you call me names, you’re such a child. I swear, I can’t even talk to you anymore. I’m done.” (Criticism & Stonewalling)

Ok, by the end of the conversation, what are they even arguing about anyway? The conversation has morphed from needing help with housework to making accusations and adding layers that point towards far deeper issues. With couples using language like, “I’m done,” triggering deeper feeling about “Done,” with the conversation or the relationship? These types of interactions lead to a downward spiral, killing our chance at being a happy couple.

The Four Horsemen

Criticism:

This is the use of global language. You ALWAYS, I have to do EVERYTHING, You NEVER, you get the drift here. Words like, always, never, everything, forever, consistently lead to defensiveness. Most people in an argument are trying to make a point with the use of exaggeration. Regardless, exaggeration can get you into trouble. For example, if you tell me I never help you around the house, I will defensively come up with at least one example where I did. Now we are no longer arguing around the issue, but instead, we are in a battle over semantics. Which leads to upping the ante with each criticism.

The antidote:

Speak for yourself, ask for what you need without making the other person the bad guy. We all tend to get defensive when we feel like the bad guy. And, if possible, work to let go of the need to share your frustration. 
Person 1, “I need help with the housework. It seems to be growing and I am overwhelmed. Could we work on it together?”

By shifting the tone and softening the startup, you can engage in an actual conversation about the actual concern. This beat the alternative, creating a fight that spirals out of control.

Person 2 might be busy or not want to help, that’s a possibility. What is certain is that you will start a fight with criticism and it takes the conversation away from what you say you need. In the blog, The Truth About Integrity in Healthy Relationships, pay attention to those 5 often hidden issues that are bubbling below the surface of conversational pitfalls.

Contempt:

As a result of his research, John Gottman found that contempt is the relationship killer. It is as obvious as calling people names, degrading them or belittling them in a conversation. “You are such an idiot, you can’t do ANYTHING right.” Furthermore, no one likes being spoken to in this manner and it very easily engages the need to defend ourselves.

Interesting side note, you can communicate contempt just by tightening your cheek muscle and rolling your eyes. This is, of course, the universal signal of “Whatever” and as any parent can attest, this look alone can trigger anger in the receiver. Contempt communicates a deep lack of respect. It might show up as making fun of someone. I remember being at a party, chatting with a friends husband, I mentioned, “I love your wife, she’s so cool.” He said with incredulity, “Really, not from my perspective.” His wife was sitting at the table, and I watched as shame bloomed on her face. It was striking, how that simple exchange showed a great deal of contempt for who she was as a person. They were divorced a few years later. 

The antidote:

Remembering friendship in your relationship is key. It’s not surprising we treat our friends better than we treat people who we consider annoying. Many couples lose their friendship as they navigate daily life. Friendship is the foundation of happy relationships. It might seem obvious that friendship is important, yet we sometimes forget to be friends. With good friends, there is typically a suspension of judgment. As in, we don’t judge as harshly or feel negatively judged ourselves. We take time understanding what’s important to one another, sharing our day with each other, and friends know and care how you are feeling. In my experience, we share laughter and find ways to connect through humor. There is a sense that we support each other’s dreams, wanting the best for one another. Finding ways to stay connected as friends as well as lovers, will help reduce contempt.

Defensiveness:

Would it surprise you that you learned everything you need to know about defensiveness by the time you were five? “I’m rubber, you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” “I know you are, but what am I?” “You’re a doo-doo head.” “Lalala, I can’t hear you.” Basically, it’s all the ways we say, “It’s you, not me.”

When you find yourself bouncing around with criticism and contempt, defensiveness is naturally triggered. The longer you have been having the same or similar argument, the faster defensiveness will rear up. I have often told couples, “I’m not interested in listening to your arguments. My guess is you don’t even need each other to have them anymore. Furthermore, you probably can play them out these arguments in your mind without each other even in the room.” And we do this, we play out arguments in our minds. Looking for a winning strategy, first I’ll say this, then she’ll say that, then “AHA” I’ll say this and win!

The antidote:

This is a hard one because the antidote is to take ownership of what part is true and ours. Rolling back to our absurd argument from earlier. 

Person 1, “I have to do everything around the house, you never help me!” (Criticism)
Person 2 new response: “I think I am hearing you’re overwhelmed and need help. And, I will own it, I have been very busy lately and not had much energy to help out. What kind of help do you need?”

By sidestepping defensiveness, and owning something true, we can de-escalate an argument. The goal is to listen for what is being said below the surface. Listening to understand, not ammo. And in all reality, we can influence a potentially better outcome and get out of a dance of destructive fighting. Consider this, anger is a party, just because you’re invited, doesn’t mean you have to attend.

Stonewalling:

Have you ever found yourself circling the drain on a topic, worn out and wishing it was over? At that moment, you have met the wall. Stonewalling is that moment in a conversation when one person shuts down. People shut down for multiple reasons: they’re exhausted by the circular argument; they don’t want the argument to escalate into a bigger fight; they feel hopeless about being able to have a better conversation; and/or they feel like no matter what they say, no one is listening. Shutting down is an attempt to self-soothe.

This horseman often has a gender bias, men tend to be the ones to shut down to avoid the continuing argument. Alas, when someone shuts down, to calm themselves or the conversation, it tends to escalate the other person. It can be interpreted as being uncaring, disregarding a concern, or a lack of willingness to work through things. So, the second person may up the ante in an attempt to re-engage the stonewaller. And, sadly, this upping the ante often works, re-engaging the fight at the next higher level.

The antidote:

It’s probably obvious that not getting mired in the Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness cycle supports healthy conversations. We can use our communication skills to keep people from wanting or needing to shut down. When you find yourself in a difficult discussion, taking a break, taking a breath, and slowing down the conversation can be super useful. Those times when we feel flooded in an argument, our brain’s ability to think is replaced with the fight, flight, freeze or freak-out responses. Ultimately, Stonewalling is about feeling out of control, threatened and/or unsafe to continue talking. So, doing what it takes to create safety is hugely important. It can’t be stated enough, we need to feel safe to share our perspectives and feel heard. Especially by those whom we care most about. 

I’m sure you’ve heard about time-outs. We give kids time-outs regularly to help them regulate their emotions, get space to calm down, breathe and be able to get their brain out of the flood zone. Yet, we don’t often consider using them ourselves. There is a big difference between stonewalling and taking a time-out. First, I am asking for a time-out, not being told to take a time-out. This conversational break needs to be time-limited. Use the space to calm down, so that we can come back to a difficult conversation with a working brain. It’s also about being in control of an argument, versus the argument having its wicked way with us. 

People often dislike the idea of a time-out in an argument. If the argument feels important, there is a fear that the conversation will not happen again until the next blow up. I mention this because it’s a pattern that happens a lot. It’s a circular safety process.

-> We ask for a time-out and our partner honors the request. We feel safe to calm down. It builds trust between us.
-> Within 24 hours we come back to the conversation and bring it up, acknowledging that it’s still important. By coming back to an unresolved difficult conversation, we build the trust with our partner.
-> The more we create a space where it’s safe for people to say “yes, let’s talk later.”
-> And, the more we come back to difficult conversations, even when we don’t want to.
-> We are building trust between us.
-> Which then keeps us in control of the argument, instead of the argument in control of us.

Rewrite the Narrative

Person 1, “Hey, I need some help with the daily chores, I’m overwhelmed.”
Person 2 responds, “I have been trying to help, at the end of the day I’m exhausted and I think I’ll get to things and then I don’t.”
Person 1 quips, “I get that, I am exhausted too.”
Person 2, “To be honest, I am starving, can we have this conversation over lunch?”
Person 1, “Sure, let’s make some food.”

Fast forward to lunch:

Person 2, “Ok, what are you thinking about the chores?”
Person 1, “I’m not sure this is true, but I feel like I am covering more of them and I don’t feel like I can keep up. I need help.”
Person 2, “Well, I think I am helping out some, but to be fair, I know I am not doing much during the week. Maybe we could team up more often, I actually like doing chores with you. I don’t like doing them when you’re sitting on the couch. It reminds me of being a kid and my parents telling me what to do.”
Person 1, “Hmmm, ok, hilarious, I don’t want to be associated with your parents. There are lots of daily things that have to be done. How do you want to work together to get all the stuff done?”
Person 2, “Maybe, let’s start with a list of chores. That might help me understand what all your noticing…”

In Conclusion

Obviously, I can’t say that every problematic conversation, using healthy communication styles, will have a 100% happy conclusion. It takes gumption to change how we discuss heated issues. Both parties need to use the antidotes in order for a change to occur in the long run. Furthermore, even in healthy happy couples, people sometimes don’t have the bandwidth at a particular moment, and a conversation can jump the rails. Given this, what I’ll say with certainty is that the 4 horsemen argument will fail 100% of the time. Win/Lose is a strategy designed to leave one person disconnected. So in closing, always remember, you are absolutely capable to grow, learn, and develop all the skills you need. Go out and craft a brilliant story of healthy communication.

Your Turn...

I would LOVE to hear from YOU!

  • What patterns do you recognize from your own arguments?
  • How do you want to use your insights to improve your relationship?  

Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

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