I don’t love you anymore!
I want a divorce!
We’re in a loveless relationship!
One of the things that leads to the most issues in relationships is a lack of communication or the repeated use of poor communication.
As explained in the previous posts in the Relationship 911 series, this post will be focusing on a core concept in Gottman Counseling called the 4 Horsemen.
The 4 Horsemen
This is a fundamental concept similar to the biblical 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are four negative communication techniques that can signal the end of a relationship. Let me preface this by saying, all couples use these 4 things to some degree. No relationship is perfect or immune. But couples that use these negative communication styles more frequently are headed for the rocks. They are:
A critical attack of your partner. Typically involving exaggerated generalizations and judgments of their character. Ex. I can’t believe how selfish you are being. You never think of anyone but yourself!
“When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean – treating others with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.” (Gottman.com). According to John Gottman, contempt is the single greatest indicator that a relationship is doomed.
This often gets paired with counter-criticism. In our fights we’ll often trade volley for volley of criticism, defensiveness and counter-criticism as things start to really heat up and head for a major argument. Ex. My fault?! How about the time you…
This occurs when one partner completely shuts down and withdraws from the other, either physically or verbally/emotionally. This is often done in an attempt to avoid a blow-up; however, it often has the opposite effect. As social beings we hate to be ignored and will force negative interaction rather than be shut out. So in actuality, shutting down almost guarantees the blow-up. Now there is something to be said for different processing speeds; but, that need must be communicated appropriately. You can’t call a time out in the middle of a football game telepathically. You have to tell the ref and get permission to take the time out first.
Knowing, recognizing and getting rid of these four techniques is a huge first step to turning your relationship around.
Instead of using the 4 Horsemen try to use these more:
The delivery is everything! Taking care to communicate with your partner in ways that don’t trigger use of the 4 Horsemen takes a lot of practice and work; but, it’s worth it. The better you get at communicating gently, the better your relationship will be. Ex. I know we’ve talked about this before and I’m not trying to start a fight; but….
This one gets a lot of comedic press in sitcoms and movies; but, it still holds true. The more you can use “I” as opposed to “you”, the better. Using “you” makes the other person feel attacked and they will get defensive. The formula the Gottman’s explain for I statements is – I + feeling word/s + about what (as opposed to about who) and what I need is _________. While more “I” is the goal, it’s impossible to remove “you” from your vocabulary; but, use it sparingly.
Neutral questions (without agenda!) that get you more information and help you better understand your partner are crucial. When things are going fine in our relationships we will often answer even closed-ended questions with open-ended answers. When there is tension or disagreement, we experience the opposite. We will give closed-ended answers even when the question is open-ended. Ex. You mentioned feeling like I don’t ever listen to you. What is one thing you wish I had heard?
Listening To Understand
Listen with the goal of gaining understanding and demonstrating that you care about how your partner thinks and feels. If you go into arguments just waiting for your turn to talk or trying to pick apart their position so you “win” you’re doomed. The only prize you’ll walk away with is a break-up or divorce.
These are just a few things to pay attention to and work to incorporate into your interactions with your partner. At the beginning, you may still have more blowups and stonewalling; but, the more you use them the more benefit you’ll see. One resource that I recommend to all of the couples I work with is The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work by John and Julie Gottman.
Up Next: Relationship 911 – Surviving The Flood