Relationships are a fundamental aspect of our society. Almost every single one of us has experienced an intimate relationship. Some of these relationships give us incredible meaning in life whereas some relationships suck the very life out of us. Marriage intends to be the final union between you and your partner, but 40-50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Nevertheless, even with high divorce rates, couples all over the world are happily married and have been for 20, 30, even over 50 years.
Let’s face it, we wouldn’t be in a relationship if we didn’t want it to succeed. Luckily, there are lots of studies and information provided by those in happy relationships, to guide us into cultivating meaningful and lasting partnerships. Some of this advice might seem second nature; some of it might surprise you.
What Kills a Relationship?
A psychologist by the name of John Gottman has been analyzing relationships for well over 40 years. As one of the most knowledgeable researchers, John has tracked couples across decades, within many studies, analyzing behavior that predicts long-term fulfillment in relationships and conversely, divorce.
John has identified many correlations within relationships and there are four that stand out the most. These behaviors are associated with a divorce in an average of around 6 years from the marriage according to professor Gottman. Here are what he call’s the “Four Horsemen” a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death, respectively. Dr. Gottman uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship. Gottman even predicted divorce with 93.6% accuracy in a 1992 study.
Don’t jump to conclusions here; there are various forms of criticism that are necessary for a relationship. Have you ever experienced a married couple that doesn’t complain to each other? Interestingly, there is a form of criticism that Gottman identified as being particularly destructive in relationships.
This is apparent when a partner criticizes the core being of the other partner. For example, “You’re busy because you don’t care about me” or “You don’t understand because you don’t listen to me”.
This type of criticism strikes at the very character of the other person. Mistakes are inevitable in any relationship, but notice how this form of criticism portrays the mistake. This criticism implies that the other person is evil or bad on a deeper level.
An easy alternative to this form of criticism is voicing your concern with an appropriate request, “I want to do something with you, let’s schedule some alone time,” or “You seem to be giving most of your attention to work, can we watch a movie later?” instead of “You’re only interested in your work because you’re selfish or don’t care.”
This is what Dr. Gottman calls the worst of the four horsemen, finding it to be the #1 predictor of divorce. It’s when we are truly mean to our partner, treating them with disrespect and mocking them with sarcasm. Contempt can also take on forms such as eye-rolling, name-calling, sneering and hostile humor. The reason contempt acts as a poison to a relationship is because of the disgust it conveys. How can you come to a solution with your partner when they’re giving you the message that they’re disgusted?
Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner, in the form of an attack from a position of relative superiority. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict rather than to reconciliation.
Take for example Allie and Ben at the dinner table after Ben states he’d rather not go out drink tonight, she lashes out:
“You want to just sit inside and do nothing? Wow, what a surprise Ben, you never want to drink. What, do you have something more important to do in the morning? Whatever.”
To add onto this destructive pattern “Dr. Gottman has found that couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, and so on) than other people! Contempt is the most poisonous of all relationship killers–destroying psychological, emotional, and physical health”.
Everybody has been defensive before. This occurs when we feel like we were unjustly accused of something and then come up with an excuse so our partner will back away. But, this strategy almost never works the way we intend it to, and our excuses often portray a lack of care for our partner.
Imagine a couple conversing about mowing the grass.
She: “Did you mow the grass this morning like you said you would? The fertilizer guys will be coming this evening”
He: “I was just extremely busy today, honestly you knew how busy I was. Why didn’t you just do it?”
Notice how he responds defensively but also puts the problem back on her. A much more reasonable and non-defensive approach would look like this:
“Whoops, I forgot. I should have asked if you could do it because I knew my day would be jam-packed. Let me do it right now.”
“Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that its perceived effect is blame. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, ‘The problem isn’t me, it’s you.’ As a result, the problem is not resolved, and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.”
Stonewalling occurs when a listener shuts down an interaction and withdraws himself or herself from the speaker as a result of feeling overwhelmed. Instead of confronting the issue at hand, when someone is stonewalling they will be unresponsive, turn away, distract themselves, engage in obsessive behavior or act busy.
Interacting with someone who is stonewalling can be frustrating and if continued, completely crushing. So how do you deal with it?
Well, you need to realize that the first step of the antidote to experiencing this unpleasantness is to stop. The second step involves a short process of psychological self-soothing outlined by Dr. Gottmann.
If you learn to do these things when your conversations become fights and tempers flare, you can keep your relationship from experiencing repeated and deeply destructive stress and save yourself and your partner from going nuts.
When to stop:
When things escalate to a level where you sense yourself reaching your boiling point (that feeling of a kettle whistling inside of you, and steam ready to come out of your ears), it’s time to take yourself off the flame! The same goes for your partner.
Let each other know when you’re feeling overwhelmed and say that you need to take a break. This break should last at least twenty minutes since it will take that much time for your bodies to physiologically calm down.
How to self-soothe:
It is crucial that during this time, you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore!”) and innocent victimhood (“Why is he always picking on me?”). Spend your time doing something soothing and distracting, like listening to music, reading a book, or taking a walk around the block.
All four of these behaviors are indicators that your relationship could use some work. It’s important to remember that every relationship experiences these behaviors at some point, and there are antidotes to it. You can learn more at The Gottman Institute here.
What secrets have you learned along the way to maintaining good relationships?