“Listening. Paying attention to no matter how urgent my need may be—to get something off my chest, to vent or complain or even bitch—that he has needs in that very same moment. We went through one very rough patch where we descended into name-calling and trying to win points and a marriage therapist pulled us back from the brink. Even when you’re pissed, you have to be respectful of your partner and that goes both ways. We each call each other out when things start to get nasty and we dial it down. It works.”
What has worked for Elaine and her husband actually is a formula for maintaining a relationship successfully, as the work of John Gottman makes clear. Many people wrongly assume that it’s fighting that sinks a marriage but, as Gottman explains, it’s not whether you fight or disagree but how you do.
And while, in the moment, great make-up sex after a fight might seem as if it’s brought you closer together, if toxicity has entered the dynamic, you’re probably kidding yourself.
Say hello to the Four Horsemen
Many years ago, a marital counselor named Susan and I talked about how rarely marital counseling actually works, and I asked her why. Her reply, born out of forty years of experience, was revelatory:
“Timing. Most people wait until their marriage has reached the very bottom of hill, and they feel obligated to give it one last shot by talking to a professional. Sometimes, seeing a therapist is a way of proving to the world that they’ve done ‘everything they could’ to save the marriage but sometimes it’s more sincere and less self-referential than that. But the problem is that by the time they get to my office, their ability to communicate is at zero and, even worse, they’ve both gotten used to playing roles when they argue. These roles are entrenched so it’s not surprising that unlearning them, especially when there’s pent-up discord, is often impossible. And they move their cars out of my parking lot into the ones adjacent to a lawyer’s office.”
In descending order, Gottman has identified four toxic ways of communicating that are bound, if left unchecked, to end a marriage or relationship. Understanding them and being able to identify them are key to not just keeping your relationship healthy but to assuring its future.
They are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Gottman writes that “As each horseman arrives, he paves the way for the next,” thus explaining how a relationship which once seemed full of connection and promise can become a never-ending cycle of recrimination and anger.
When you fight, do either of you begin sentences with the words, “You always” or “You never?” The difference between complaining and criticism may, at a glance, seem superficial or just parsing words but it actually isn’t; according to Gottman, criticism involves “attacking someone’s character or personality—rather than a specific behavior—usually with blame.” It’s not usual for members of a couple to have differing views about spending money but when you complain about how your partner has, in your opinion, over-spent, do you make it personal? Do you bring up as many examples of his or her failure as you can dredge out of the past? Or do you simply point out that the money was actually needed for something else? There is an important difference.
Complaining, done right, is actually a good thing in a marriage or relationship; it’s generally a bad idea to muzzle yourself until you reach a boiling point because it’s at that moment that you’re going to be more likely to lapse into criticism than not. Speak up but pay attention to how you speak.
In Gottman’s view, criticism opens the door to the next horseman which is contempt; he defines contempt as “the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner.” Yes, things have escalated to the point that the knives are out and it’s all about power and control. Contempt can be expressed through physical gestures (eye rolling, sneering, or mocking laughter) or verbally such as calling someone names or insulting them. Make no mistake: These are abusive behaviors and shouldn’t be excused or placated. And, yes, apologies are in order.
The real problem here is that what reigns is retaliation and what has shifted is your or your partner’s motivation.
This may seem initially confusing because, after all, if someone has criticized you or displayed contempt, shouldn’t you make an effort to defend yourself? The problem is that defensiveness becomes a go-to stance which effectively cuts off even a remote possibility of communicating and, of course, the person defending him or herself feels utterly justified so there’s no hope of that person simply stopping on a dime.
Gottman has identified certain kinds of defensive postures and they’re worth familiarizing yourself with especially if they have infiltrated your familiar ways of interacting. Denying responsibility, no matter what, is one, while making excuses is another. Sometimes, they are intertwined as one wife discovered when she found out her husband had intentionally hidden something important from her; when challenged he replied, “If you’d asked me the right question, I would have told you.” (Gottman doesn’t mention this defensive tactic but blame-shifting fits right in.) A phrase he signals out is “Yes but” which seems to begin as taking responsibility but then immediately segues into the “but” part.
If one or both partners inevitably become defensive in this way, you are on a train to nowhere.
Manipulative to the max and meant to marginalize and demoralize, stonewalling really sounds the death knell of a relationship. Stonewalling is often justified by the person doing it as trying to calm things down but stony silence actually ratchets up tension. This is abusive behavior, meant to disempower the person speaking and make them feel worthless and small.
Again, if stonewalling is habitual, that’s one thing, but if your partner walks out of a room in an effort to tamp down his or your temper, that’s no reason to hit the panic button. Men tend to stonewall more than women, research shows; it’s been studied so often that the formal name for the behavior is Demand/Withdraw and it even has an acronym, DM/W.
In a relationship with one controlling partner, stonewalling can be effective because it plays on the insecurities of the disempowered partner who is more likely to start apologizing and appeasing when faced with stony silence. While this cycle of stonewall-and-make-up may seem to grant the relationship a reprieve (and may include some hot make-up sex too), it’s a game-ender in the long run.
Toxic behaviors such as these should never be normalized. Keep that in mind and do seek counsel sooner rather than later.
Photograph by Sabina Tone. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside Books, 1994.