In any intimate, committed relationship we are bound to have differences with our partner. Since no two people are exactly alike, nor would we want it that way, the goal is not to eliminate disagreements (which, by the way, are not an indicator that a relationship is on the rocks), but to develop skills in the area of constructive conflict.
John and Julie Gottman, psychotherapists who developed the Gottman Method of couples therapy, claim that they can predict with 93% accuracy if a married couple will still be married five years down the line. The Gottmans have done this by having a couple stay for a weekend in an apartment termed the Love Lab, where all of the couple’s conversations and actions (aside from those in the bathroom and bedroom) are recorded. Over 30 years’ time and observing over 3000 married couples in the Love Lab, the Gottmans have developed a list of communication styles termed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that, unless eradicated or at least reduced by practicing the antidotes, are indicative of a relationship that is in danger of ending in divorce.
The Four Horseman and their antidotes:
Horseman #1: Criticism, characterized as complaining about our partner in a manner that suggests a flaw in our partner’s character. For example, “You are such a slob” or “You only think about yourself.” Such criticism does not generally lead to a constructive response by the recipient, who probably feels quite threatened at this moment and may become defensive. The general result is that neither you nor your partner feel heard or appreciated.
The antidote: Using a Gentle Start-Up, in which we discuss our feelings and then state a positive need. For instance, “When you come home in the evening and talk only about your day, I feel sad and as if I don’t matter. I would like it if you would ask me how my day went.” When we have a complaint, there is a wish within that complaint, and in expressing our wish, we offer our partner an opportunity to fulfill that wish.
Horseman #2: Defensiveness. We fend off an imagined attack or perceive ourselves to be an innocent victim. For example, “There you go, nagging me again” or “You don’t understand how tired I am after such a long workday.” This approach just escalates the negative communication.
The antidote: Taking responsibility for our part (even if it’s a small part) of the problem. We show that we can see our partner’s perspective. For instance, “I see how you might feel as if I don’t care about your day” or “Yes, I can get caught up in my own stuff at times”. In every situation, there are two ways of viewing the issue, and it’s important that both people feel validated and heard. A note – validating does not necessarily mean that you agree, but that you understand your partner’s point of view.
Horseman #3: Contempt, in which we imply by either our words or nonverbal behavior that we feel superior to our partner. Examples include rolling our eyes, sneering, or making insults. The Gottmans consider contempt to be the most malignant of the four horsemen. When we mock or put down our partner, we effectively tear down any sense of safety, affection, respect, and friendship in our relationship.
The antidote: Showing appreciation for our partner and expressing our feelings and needs (see antidote to Criticism), rather than pointing the finger at our partner. Even in the midst of a disagreement, we can say, “I understand”, “I love you”, or “Thank you for…”. We can also reach out and hold our partner’s hand or touch their arm, showing that we are their ally and friend, not their adversary.
Horseman #4: Stonewalling. We withdraw emotionally from the conversation. We also might walk out of the room or turn our back on our partner. The majority of Stonewallers are men, but women are capable of this, too. With Stonewalling, we are attempting to calm ourselves, to deal with a sense of overwhelm, but it usually looks as if we just don’t care. This can lead our partner to increase his or her demands to talk, which generally results in our retreating further. Not a recipe for harmony.
The antidote: Learning to recognize when we are in emotion overload and how to comfort ourselves and our partner. The Gottmans suggest that when our heartrate escalates to 100 beats per minutes or higher (or, for athletes, 80 beats per minute or higher), we are in a state of Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA) and cannot adequately hear our partner or respond to them effectively. To gauge this, 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 isn’t always feasible in the midst of an intense discussion, but it’s possible more often than you might expect. Doing so also gives you a chance to pause, which is often helpful in and of itself.
With or without a pulse check, learn to identify when you’re overwrought. Feeling overheated, anxious, threatened, nauseous, dizzy, or faint can all be indications that you’re in a state of DPA. Agree with your partner that if one of you reaches this point, you will take a temporary break from the conversation to practice deep, slow breathing, guided visualization, or another relaxation technique. Your partner can do the same. Do make a plan to resume the conversation at a stated time, such as in an hour or the next day, so that your self-soothing technique does not become an excuse to avoid continuing the discussion indefinitely.
In essence, the antidotes to the Four Horsemen are methods by which you remind yourself and your partner that your relationship and the other person matter greatly to you and that you are committed to working together as a team. To agree to disagree, if that’s the case, but to reach solutions that support the good of your union.