The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (and What to Do About Them)

The tagline in Judith’s Dance While You Cook blog reads “As of today, I am shedding survival mode and adopting thrival mode.”  I’ve been thinking about that a lot in the last few days, as it seemed rather apt for the yucky muck I’ve been stuck these past couple of weeks.  After all my bellowing and kvetching over Gabriel’s new allergies, I decided it was time to finally suck it up and start moving forward. It’s in this spirit of taking responsibility for one’s self and one’s relationships that I post the following:

A while back, Steve suggested I pick up John Gottman‘s book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. When I finally dragged myself to the bookstore the other day, I realized why the book sounded so familiar: I’d already read at least 4 or 5 articles quoting Gottman’s work.  Gottman and his buds at the University of Washington found out that they could predict with 90% accuracy whether a marriage would succeed or fail. How’s that for frightening?

The Gottman book I ended up buying was co-written with his wife, Julie Schwartz Gottman: And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives.  All of the Gottman books are centered around the subtleties of how we interact with our beloved, and “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” are some of the biggest, baddest predictors of marital strife.

In our research, we discovered that these behaviors were our strongest predictors of relationship demise, especially if couples failed to repair them.  When couples’ problem-solving discussions contained these toxic behaviors repeatedly and couples had no antidotes for them, their relationships were not long for this world.  So it’s important that we understand these horsemen to keep them from trampling our relationships.

* Criticism is a way of complaining that globally attacks our partner’s personality by pointing out his or her defects…. The antidote to criticism is to make a complaint–to state our feelings and describe the situation neutrally, using words like “I’m upset that the garbage hasn’t been taken out” instead of “You’re too lazy to take out the garbage.”

* Defensiveness is what we want to toss back when we feel criticized.  When we perceive an attack, it’s only natural to raise our arms to ward off our attacker.  We can defend ourselves by (1) attacking back…; (2) proclaiming our innocence…; (3) being righteously indignant…; or (4) whining like a victim….  With phrases like these, we hide out and cover up that we have any responsibility for our problems….

So the antidote to defensiveness is to openly acknowledge our part in messing things up…. We’re human, and we make mistakes–better that we admit them and make peace than deny them and make war.

* Contempt is our strongest predictor of divorce.  When we’re contemptuous, we sling criticism down on our partner from the pinnacle of our own superiority. Therefore, contempt is the epitome of disrespect…. What’s the alternative? The antidote for contempt is to express our appreciation and respect for each other, to each other, in small ways, every day.

* Stonewalling is the last of the Four Horsemen, and it means exactly what it sounds like.  When we dislike what our partner is saying, we become a stone wall and we give no response whatsoever…. Our studies…revealed that when people stonewall, their pulses are typically racing at over a hundred beats per minutes….We reasoned that when we stonewall, we’re attempting to eliminate all incoming stimuli (like our partner’s voice) so that we can calm ourselves down.  But the problem is that stonewalling drives our partners crazy….

The antidote to stonewalling? If we get too overwhelmed, we need to take responsibility for our bodies’ condition by taking a break, soothing ourselves, and making sure we come back to our partners within a reasonable time period…. Focusing on our breathing when we begin to get upset can [also] be a big help.  Finally, to counteract stonewalling, we can signal to our partners that we hear them, even if we only nod our heads or gaze into their eyes. (Gottman and Gottman, 59-60)

I’ll write more about this Gottman stuff as we go, but for now, check out The Gottman Relationship Institute if you’d like to learn more about this work.

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