We’ve talked about the magic ratio to keep your relationship healthy, so I want to help you be on the lookout for four things that will eventually take any relationship down the breakup path. John Gottman, a renowned researcher on relationships, calls these the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Are any of these present in your relationship?
- Criticism. Criticism is way different than offering a suggestion or vocalizing a complaint. We should totally be talking about things that aren’t working for us, but in a healthy way. Criticism usually includes the words “never” or “always.” Criticism: “You always forget to take out the garbage. You’re so forgetful.” It’s a personal attack, is usually hurtful, and it most certainly escalates the situation.
- Contempt. Contempt is toxic and leeches anything positive from your relationship. It’s defined as a mix of anger and disgust, and it shows up with sarcasm, ridicule, or name-calling. John Gottman says that contempt is the biggest predictor of divorce and needs to be completely eliminated from your relationship. How it most often appears in a relationship is through comments or body language that suggest one person is superior and the other is inferior. Just an eye roll can demonstrate contempt.
- Defensiveness.“It’s not my fault. It’s your fault.” This one sneaks into relationships most commonly and with great ease. Oftentimes it’s due to us feeling attacked or misheard, and if we can just explain our side of the story, our partner will see why we did what we did. However, it appears as an excuse and it gets us out of being accountable for our behavior. When we start defending ourselves, we discount our partner’s experience. Admitting our mistakes and acknowledging our partner’s experience is a great way to get out of defensiveness.
- Stonewalling. This is also known as the silent treatment. Usually this appears when we feel overwhelmed and attempt to de-escalate a situation or avoid it. However, it usually makes a situation worse. It’s a great idea to take space in an argument, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed. However, this needs to be communicated somehow — both parties need to know when the conversation will resume.
Your homework is to notice how often these show up in your relationship. Have a conversation with your partner about what he sees happening. By asking if any of these have shown up before, you’ll be able to see where you might default. And if you’re sick of the horrible fighting cycle, make a game plan about how to change it. How do you argue? What are your strategies for keeping it healthy?