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Couples

The ‘four horsemen’ of relationship breakdown

American couple therapist John Gottman has been researching for many years the reasons why relationships fail.

He has identified four important reasons, which he names the Four Horsemen. These are:

  • Criticism – which is often expressed by saying ‘you always…’ or ‘you never…’
  • Contempt – insulting or putting someone down in a way that shows you think they are inferior.
  • Defensiveness – not taking responsibility for your behaviour and instead criticizing the other or finding excuses.
  • Stonewalling – refusing to talk about something or withdrawing from the relationship to avoid conflict. In reality, the partner who stonewalls is withdrawing as a means of punishing the other because they are communicating separation and disapproval.

In gender terms, women are more likely to criticize and men to stonewall. So, a woman may crticise her partner, who then stonewalls by ignoring her comments or withdrawing and this makes the woman angrier and so she criticizes even more.

Of these four behaviours, the most important in determining whether a relationship will survive or not is contempt. Where there is contempt expressed by one or both partners there is far less chance of them staying together.

It’s important to realise that contempt does not just mean insulting the other person but can also include sarcastic comments or even rolling your eyes to other people when your partner says something you don’t like.

The reason contempt is so poisonous to a relationship is because it is not just criticizing the other person, it is putting yourself in a superior position. It is a rejection of the other person.

Criticism vs complaint

It is better to complain, rather than criticize. By complain, I mean expressing your feeling, such as annoyance or hurt, about a specific behaviour of your partner.

Criticism is often more generalised and blaming. It often includes phrases like ‘you always…’ ‘you never…’ ‘you’re the sort of person who…’. It is hard for someone to respond constructively to this kind of criticism and they are more likely to become defensive.

A complaint would be: ‘When you forgot to get me a present for our anniversary I felt hurt and angry.’ A criticism would be: ‘You never show your appreciation for me – you just don’t care.’

Categories
Couples

Handling conflict in relationships

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When we are annoyed or hurt by something our partner has said or done, how can we express our feelings in a way that they will really hear what we are saying?

A common approach in couple conflicts is to accuse our partner of ‘making’ us feel angry, upset or sad by their behaviour. While at times it might be ok to use this approach – sometimes we need to blow off steam – it often fails, as it tends to put the other person on the defensive.  It also allows us to avoid taking responsibility for our feelings.

This kind of criticism is often accompanied by words like ‘always’ and ‘never’, such as, ‘You always take the kids’ side against me’ or ‘You never listen to me’. Again, this kind of blaming language is unlikely to get the other person to genuinely talk about the grievance you have.

While there needs to be a place for argument and conflict in any relationship, if a couple is in the habit of dealing with conflict in an accusatory and blaming way it is unlikely to help resolve problems.

Compassionate communication

One approach to avoiding this kind of blaming is called ‘compassionate communication’, also known as ‘nonviolent communication’. This approach, developed by American Marshall Rosenberg,  can be used with our partners or anyone else we may find ourselves in conflict with. It has four components:

  • Observation – we tell the other person what they are doing that we don’t like. But we do this without judging the behaviour.
  • Feelings – we say how we feel when they behave like this: afraid? Sad? Hurt? Irritated?
  • Needs – we say what needs of ours are being affected by their behaviour. For example, our need to be respected.
  • Requests – this is when we tell the other person what we want from them that will improve the situation.

An example: Sue is feeling more and more frustrated by how little emotional contact Michael is willing to offer. Many women would say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why are you so closed off? It drives me up the wall!’ While understandable, this kind of response is likely to make Michael even more closed off.

Shifting the energy

But when the complainant can be specific about exactly what behaviour she is unhappy with and what her feelings and needs are it can shift the energy away from blame.

So Sue could say: ‘When I get home and you don’t ask me about how my day was I feel lonely inside and distanced from you.’

She may add that this means her need for emotional closeness with her partner is not being met. She may then make a request. This could be that they agree to spend some time, perhaps over a glass of wine or while cooking the meal, re-connecting with each other by talking.

In his book Nonviolent Communication, Rosenberg says that when we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion.

He says:  ‘Through its emphasis on deep listening – to ourselves as well as to others – nonviolent communication fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart.’