Today we’re going to talk about four habits that can weaken your relationship and even tear it apart. These are taken from the work of Dr. John Gottman, a man with over 40 years of research into what makes relationships succeed or fail. I was fortunate enough to train with Dr. Gottman and his wife Dr. Julie Gottman, and as a Marriage and Family Therapist, their work is groundbreaking. They call these four relationships habits “The Four Horsemen.” I call them relationship killers. So let’s talk about what they are and how to interact with your partner in a more productive way.
The first habit is Criticism. Criticism sounds like “you always” or “you never.” It makes a negative statement about the other person’s character in a way that makes them feel personally under attack. Let’s say your spouse is responsible for managing some of the bills, and he forgets to pay the cable company. You get a collections call, and you are upset. Criticism would say something like “Why are you always forgetting to pay this bill?? I can’t trust you with the simplest thing. Honestly, I think you would forget your own head if it weren’t attached to your body!” Ouch. Chances are, your partner’s reaction to this is not going to be good. They may be defensive, angry, guilty, or feel verbally put down. You have a valid complaint, because bills have to be paid on time. But instead of sharing your concern without blame or personal attack, you have come at your partner with guns blazing. A way to handle the situation in a healthier way might be to say something like, “I got a collection call today from the cable company. The bill wasn’t paid as we agreed. Can we talk about how to handle this better? It makes me feel really uncomfortable when bills aren’t paid on time.” You express your complaint, which is a valid one, but without Criticism.
The second habit is Defensiveness, which can sometimes be the other side of Criticism, or it can be part of your interaction all on its own. Defensiveness sounds like “It’s not my fault the bill was late! The bank didn’t post my transfer on time. It’s their fault!” Defensiveness is making excuses, to protect yourself from a perceived attack. It’s meeting a complaint with a cross-complaint. “You didn’t pay the cable bill” is met with “Yeah, well YOU forgot to take out the garbage again!” Defensiveness gets you nowhere. An alternative to defensiveness is to take a deep breath and listen to what your partner is saying. If they are not saying it perfectly, try to listen for the meaning behind their words. Ask for clarification, and really listen with the goal of understanding where they are coming from. If you own part of the problem, take responsibility for your role in it and then work together to move on to solutions.
Third, we have one of the most insidious relationship killers, and that’s Contempt. Contempt is ugly and it hurts. Sometimes it’s used to hurt on purpose. Contempt is a form of attack – it’s attacking your partner’s sense of self with insults, superiority, eye-rolling, name-calling, sneering, mockery, and humor that is used in a hostile way. In Dr. John Gottman’s research over four decades, he found contempt to be the #1 predictor of divorce. Contempt shows that you feel disgust for your partner, and it can be poisonous enough to not only destroy your relationship, but studies are showing that it can have a detrimental effect on your physical health as well. Contempt usually comes from longstanding resentments against a partner. Working together to set ground rules for communication and arguments, and beginning to build an environment of respect and appreciation can help resolve contempt.
Finally, we have Stonewalling. One partner shuts down. They withdraw, tune out, suddenly become “busy,” change the subject, turn on the Silent Treatment, or they leave the room. Stonewalling generally comes from feeling what we call “Flooded.” The person who is stonewalling is actually feeling completely overwhelmed, and they withdraw as the only available option to self-soothe. When your partner is stonewalling, you may feel rejected, ignored, or as if your partner doesn’t care enough to continue to work through an argument. So, here is the way to handle stonewalling. The partner who shuts down has to learn to recognize the signs of stonewalling, such as an increase in heart rate, and know that it’s okay to say “I am feeling flooded right now. Can we take a break, and return to this in an hour?” Then use that time to calm down, to walk, to find a healthy distraction. Chances are if both partners can approach stonewalling in this way, they will come back to the interaction feeling more calm and clearheaded.
So, the next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation with your partner, notice which of these relationship killers are present, and work together on how you can resolve them for good. It might take a lot of practice to learn to consistently use new relationship tools, but it is worth it. If you find yourself stuck in old patterns, reach out to a qualified couples therapist in your area to work with you both and help restore your healthy connection.