Written by Guest Author: Jonathan Miller, Ed.M., LPCC-S
“We want to stop fighting,” is what most couples say at their first therapy session. “That’s never going to happen,” is what John Gottman, Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, would tell them. So why is he considered one of the most important figures in relationship counseling?
Gottman spent years studying couples and how they communicate. Although he came to see there’s no way to avoid conflict, he also found squabbles don’t have to spell doomsday. He identified four emotional reactions that shred relationships. He called them the “Four Horsemen”, after the Biblical figures who signal the coming end of the world. He also picked out four substitutes to make arguments productive.
From the least harmful to the most, the four riders are:
Criticism: “How can you treat me this way?” “You never think about what I want.” “Why do you have to be so selfish?”
Criticism is anything that implies something is fundamentally wrong with your partner. If you use words like “always” or “never”, it’s criticism. After all, if it happens every time, there must be something lasting about them and their character.
“Complaints” are more effective: “What you said hurt my feelings.” “When you don’t do your share, I wonder why I should do mine.” “That kind of language gets me really angry.”
This kind of complaint isn’t whining. Good complaints are specific about what your partner does, and what you’d like them to do differently. Be careful; if you give anyone with a long list of detailed complaints, it might as well be global criticism.
It’s worth the time it takes to spell out the problem precisely. Criticism often provokes …
Defensiveness: “Have you looked in a mirror lately?” “If you don’t like my temper, don’t talk like I’m an idiot.” “ME? What about you?”
When you feel attacked, you want to defend. It’s easy to believe your partner starts all the trouble, and easier to think your actions should be overlooked.
“Owning” part of the criticism, even a small part, will get their attention: “You’re right, I should have done the dishes.” “I talk to kids all day, so maybe I don’t realize how I sound.” “You did say you wanted to leave by 6:00 PM.”
If 90% of what your partner says is flat wrong, start by agreeing to the 10% that’s accurate. They’ll be more relaxed and open to the other things you want to say. Fight the temptation to rationalize what you’ve done or to point out your partner’s blind spots. They will get the message you don’t care about things that are vital to them. That can lead to …
Contempt: “I’m the only one who’s being logical here.” “If you don’t like it, get out.” “You’re just like your mother and I’m sick of you both.”
Contempt includes ridicule, eye-rolls, condescension or any kind of belittling comparison. It goes far beyond gentle teasing. When partners hold genuine contempt for one another, the relationship is most likely over.
Cultivate a “culture of appreciation” in your thoughts about the other person, and it can overgrow the contemptuous ideas: “He works really hard in the yard,” “She never keeps me waiting,” “He’s great with the kids.” You don’t have to pretend you aren’t frustrated. Write up a list of their good qualities and re-read it. Realistic, appreciative thoughts will balance your thinking and you’ll remember they aren’t garbage.
You don’t want them to think you see them that way. It can result in …
Stonewalling: (Nothing is said.)
When people feel overwhelmed by sadness, anger or fear, sometimes they shut down. They may look away, cross their arms or sigh heavily, but they won’t communicate.
Stonewalling hurts. It sends the message, “I don’t care enough to answer you.” Ironically, it’s often intended to help. If your partner grows quiet, it may be they don’t want to lose their temper. When one person thinks, “I’m going to keep my mouth shut so I don’t make it worse,” and the other thinks, “I’m going to keep talking until he shows me he understands,” it makes for a long, destructive, one-sided conversation.
To break out of stonewalling, “calm yourself and respond.” Slow, measured breaths will relax you enough to speak with an even tone. Even if you only say, “I’m agitated and I want a break,” you’ve told your partner you respect them enough to say that much.