Years ago, I was in a struggling relationship. My fiance and I were having serious disagreements and our wedding date was looming closer and closer. I knew I had to make a decision and I wasn’t ready to commit one way or the other.
So I reached out to a very close friend and confidentially shared my very serious problems in the relationship. Her answer? Have you ever dreamed that he died? Nothing violent or horrible but just passing away? If you have, that means it’s over. Um what? Ok, so I have to wait for a pretty sick dream to tell me what to do with the rest of my life?
Google your relationship concerns. You won’t find anything much more helpful than what my girlfriend told me.
But there are a few relationship experts out there whom I really trust. Their knowledge is based in years of working with actual couples in long-term relationships. So let’s stop trying to read the tea leaves and get into some facts.
One is Dr. John Gottman, a brilliant author and martial researcher. He has written many books including Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. Through his many years studying the habits and progress of married couples, Dr. Gottman can predict with 93% accuracy if a marriage will survive by simply observing how the couple interacts. He has a fact-based approach based in detailed data collection over decades.
Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind — but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values. -Dr. John Gottman
And his research exposes the true damage caused by living in an unhappy marriage. When we live in unhappy marriages Gottman finds we are 35% more likely to suffer a chronic illness and on average, take 4 years off our lives.
A European study evaluating relationship dynamics and found that men who experienced chronic demands from their partner were twice as likely to be dead within 10 years. Health effects of unhappy marriages are no better for women. The stress of relationship dissatisfaction has real consequences.
Gottman coined the relationship term “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to describe the four communication styles the most likely predict relationship failure. Gottman explains the nature of the relationship breakdown, like in the Book of Revelations, they ride together and they spell the end of days.
The first horseman. This is where it all begins.
What is criticism? A statement including the words always or never. Like: You always put yourself first. You never think about me. Words have incredible power. You can crush someone with a statement. What you are conveying with a criticism is that you have recognized a personality flaw and are attacking the character of your partner.
As we move through life, we have our natural ups and downs. Often we manage our disappointment by looking outward. The easiest person to blame for our own internal feelings is our partner. My negative feelings are a result of your behavior. In reality, we should be responsible for our own emotional well-being.
And the danger of criticism is that it becomes a relationship pattern that leads to the next horseman.
Number two. This one is tough.
What is contempt? It is being dismissive or condescending. Sarcastic comments, mocking, expressing disgust, hostile jokes, making fun of your partner when they attempt something new. It is an attempt to gain the upper hand, a grab for a position of superiority.
Malcolm Gladwell quotes Gottman in his bestselling book Blink:
“If Gottman observes one or both partners in a marriage showing contempt toward the other, he considers it the most important sign that a marriage is in trouble.”
Contempt is poison to a relationship. It erodes trust. It damages the psyche. It harms your self-worth and your overall health. The Gottman Institute research found people are far more likely to fall ill when they experience contempt from their partner.
Gottman places contempt as the single greatest predictor of divorce.
The third horseman is a reaction to the other two.
What is defensiveness? At its heart, it is excuse making. When you feel attacked it is natural to reach to defend yourself. But defensiveness is more than that. It is, in effect, turning the blame back onto your partner. Did you call the plumber to fix the faucet? …You know how busy I am. Why didn’t you just do it yourself? The response is defensive because it escalates conflict. The partner is taking no responsibility. This is dysfunctional communication.
Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner, which is saying in effect “the problem isn’t me, it’s you”. -Dr. John Gottman
Now we get into the dynamic nature of relationships. One behavior creates the reaction of another. The communication in the relationship is now breaking down completely.
Number four. The death of communication.
What is stonewalling? It is a version of giving up. It looks like tuning out. A question is asked and there is no response. Communication is not happening on any level. There is a wall being built and nothing can get in. Internally, the person stonewalling may just be thinking, if I ignore this it will go away. I just won’t respond.
Experiencing relationship challenges is painful. But checking out closes all hope of healthy communication. Stonewalling is really just a result of the first three unhealthy behaviors being present in the relationship. Non-responsiveness completely closes the door on any sense of being in it together.
Conflict is natural in any relationship. But they key to having a great experience in any relationship is how you manage conflict.
Every disagreement does not have to be resolved but instead, it is the interaction that matters. That is why Dr. Gottman calls his Four Horseman failures of communication.
Building a perfect relationship free of conflict is not the goal. Where you want perfection is in how you treat one another despite the conflict.
It is the smallest acts of kindness that are the most valuable. It is deep respect and appreciation for your partner that comes through in every word, smile and look you share. Partnership is a supportive proposition and it takes place in every moment.
Listening is sexier than talking. Asking questions is sexier than broadcasting. Being generally interested is much more important than trying to be interesting.
-Dr. John Gottman