Relationship Challenges: The Four Horsemen
Understanding the dynamics that can lead to relational distress is an important starting point for improving your relationship. John and Julie Gottman identified four negative communication patterns that can deteriorate the foundation of a relationship – what they call ‘the Four Horsemen’. By recognizing and addressing these relationship challenges, couples can take proactive steps toward building a healthier and more fulfilling connection. Below, we’ll learn to recognize each of the Four Horsemen and discover ways to overcome them.
The first of four relationship challenges, criticism involves making personal attacks or attacks on one’s character. It goes beyond expressing concerns about a specific behavior or action and tends to be more generalized. Criticism often takes the form of statements like, “You always do this,” or “You never consider my feelings.” It damages the partner’s self-esteem and can create a defensive and hostile atmosphere within the relationship.
The antidote for criticism is to voice your complaint to your partner without attacking them in the process. Do this by using a “Soft Start-Up”. If you start a conversation with an attack, naturally the other person will defend. Instead, use “I-Statements”. Starting statements with “I” instead of “You” can help guard your partner against feeling attacked and encourage receptiveness to what you are saying. Focus on expressing what you feel and naming a positive need from your partner. Using “I” statements and expressing one’s feelings and needs clearly can foster understanding and empathy between partners.
Defensiveness occurs when individuals feel attacked or criticized and instinctively respond by blame-shifting or making excuses. Defensiveness can escalate conflicts and hinder effective communication. When partners become defensive, they often fail to take responsibility for their part in the issue, leading to a cycle of blame and unresolved conflicts.
To address defensiveness, it is vital to cultivate a mindset of openness and self-reflection. Taking ownership and responsibility of one’s actions and acknowledging the validity of the other person’s concerns can create an environment where both partners feel heard and validated.
According to John Gottman, contempt is the #1 predictor of divorce. He says that contempt is “sulfuric acid for love”. What makes it so destructive to a relationship? Contempt involves displaying a sense of superiority and disrespect toward one’s partner. Some common examples are sarcasm, mockery, and eye rolling. It conveys invalidation, resentment, and a lack of appreciation towards the other person.
Couples can combat contempt by building a culture of appreciation and respect for one another. Engaging in small acts of kindness, expressing gratitude, and actively listening to one’s partner’s perspective can help build a foundation of mutual respect and understanding.
Stonewalling is a form of emotional withdrawal where one partner disengages from the conversation and shuts down. It typically involves avoiding eye contact, giving short responses, or physically leaving the room. Stonewalling can occur when a person feels overwhelmed, flooded with emotions, or unable to effectively express themselves.
If you or your partner are becoming emotionally flooded, take a time-out of at least twenty minutes and practice self-soothing. It is very important to spend this time doing something that will help you calm down and become less flooded, instead of ruminating about the issue and becoming more riled up. Some activities for self-soothing might include practicing mindfulness and meditation, listening to music, reading, exercising, or practicing progressive muscle relaxation. Anything that helps you calm down.
You might begin to realize as you read this, that some of these relationship challenges are currently present in your relationship. Do not panic! By having awareness of these behaviors and patterns and actively working to replace them with healthier alternatives, couples can work to foster a greater connection and understanding in their relationships. Effective and healthy communication is key to building and maintaining a strong and thriving relationship.
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