Relationships Are Difficult!
Gottman's 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Let’s face it, relationships are hard. A romantic relationship, sharing your life with another person, is even harder. Partners in a romantic relationship may have different perspectives, values, and priorities, and think and behave in different ways. When couples come to see me, the most common presenting complaint I hear is “We are having communication issues.” What I think that they are really saying underneath is, “We are different people and we are having difficulty navigating this process.”
Dr. John Gottman, one of the most respected relationship researchers, can detect if a couple will have a lasting relationship within moments of observing them. Gottman and his team of researchers have been conducting relationship research for several decades and concluded that there are two types of couples: “masters” and “disasters.” Masters of relationships tend to move toward instead of away; validate perspectives and emotions; are kind, gentle, and respectful; are skillful communicators; are aware and sensitive to each other’s triggers and past traumas; show affection, admiration, and appreciation; and can regulate their own emotions skillfully. Disasters of relationships are less skillful communicators; tend to get caught up in “fight, flight, or freeze” mode; focus on the negative; unable and unwilling to understand or validate other perspectives; turn away; and react with negative emotions. These “disasters” of relationships engage in what Gottman calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
People often think that couples who argue have unhealthy relationships. That is far from the truth! Gottman’s research has discovered that healthy relationships are not determined based on whether couples argue, rather they are based on how couples argue. Conflict is inevitable and is even healthy to promote growth and activity! When Gottman observes couples and notices any of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” interactions or styles, he can place them into the “disasters” category. These four negative styles are:
3. Contempt or disrespect
Criticism is when one partner attacks the other partner’s core character or personality. It refers to when partners use “You always…” and “You never…” statements. For example, “You are always late,” or “You never clean up after yourself.” Think about it, is your partner always late, every single time? Has your partner never cleaned up, ever? No, it just seems like that from past patterns. When you say, “You are always late,” it is attacking their whole personality. It is characterizing them as a “late person.” It is not focusing on the specific behavior, but rather it is focusing on the person herself/himself. When partners start conversations in this manner, it generally leads to the second “Horseman,” defensiveness.
Defensiveness is the natural reaction to criticism. When someone tells you that you are always late, you pull yourself back and respond, “What do you mean, I was on-time yesterday morning for our appointment.” This then begins a game of “who did it when,” and partners begin to keep score. They start blaming each other for things instead of taking responsibility for their actions or perceived actions. Further examples of defensiveness are retaliation, when one partner complains about the other; angry counterattacks, which may be filled with resentment; and whining, where one partner tends to claim to be the innocent victim.
Gottman noted that couples who engage in the third style, Contempt or Disrespect, are most vulnerable to distress and separation. This style is most dangerous since one partner views him or herself as superior to the other partner. One partner does not view the relationship as being equal. This causes the “superior one” to insult, curse, or abuse the other partner. Included in this category is eye-rolling, name-calling, and sneering. These behaviors and attitudes threaten the foundation of the relationship and cause the most harm.
Lastly, Stonewalling is a favorite among partners, especially male partners. It refers to when a partner withdraws, shuts down, or removes oneself from an interaction or situation. Additionally, one may stop talking, stop listening, or ignore what their partner is saying. Partners tell me that they are doing this to prevent the situation from escalating, which is very honorable and seemingly protective! However, if they are simply avoiding the conversation forever and do not return to the topic later, this causes more harm in the relationship. They are avoiding connection altogether.
Partners who engage in any of the above interaction styles tend to experience frustration, helplessness, hopelessness, and hurt in their relationships. They try to initiate conversations, but the conversations never end how partners would like them to end. This is when couples conclude that they have “difficulty communicating.” Their conversations fall flat or escalate into rageful episodes of aggression, and partners tends to give in, give up, and/or get hurt in the process. They end up turning away from each other, causing distance, dislike, insecurities, and loneliness in the relationship.
There is good news! Even if you believe that you and your partner engage in these four negative interaction styles, you are still able to achieve mastery in your relationship. Gottman’s research also provides the Four Antidotes for each of the Four Horsemen that can transform your relationship into a positive, communicative, and healthy one; navigating conflict in a skillful manner. This will be the next topic in my articles.