Making Love Relationships Work
John Gottman, PhD is the expert on why marriages succeed or fail. He conducts his research in his “love lab” in Seattle. He has observed thousands of couples and with his research he has been able to predict with great accuracy which couples stay together and which marriages end in divorce.
First of all, there are four troublesome issues that cause a marriage to be unhappy. Gottman calls these the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They are, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and withdrawal.
The first horseman is criticism. There may not appear to be much difference between complaining and criticizing. Complaints are an important part of a healthy relationship and allow for discussing differing expectations whereas criticizing involves attacking someone’s personality or character – rather than a specific behavior. An example of criticism is, “Why did you buy that – when you know we’re trying to save money? You always do things like that – you just don’t care.” Criticism is more global rather than something specific. Another example from Gottman’s book “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail” shows clearly the difference between a complaint and criticism.
- Complaint: We don’t go out as much as I’d like to.
- Criticism: You never take me anywhere.
The second horseman is contempt. Contempt is the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner. It stems from negative thoughts about your partner – you no longer have respect for your partner. Signs of contempt include name-calling, hostile humor, mockery and body language such as rolling your eyes.
The third horseman is defensiveness. When contempt enters the relationship, people feel attacked. Often they respond with defending themselves. The self-defense can take several different forms.
- Denying responsibility (I didn’t do anything wrong.)
- Making excuses (Blaming external circumstances)
- Cross-complaining (Countering a complaint with an immediate complaint of your own, totally ignoring what your partner has said.)
- Yes-butting (Agreeing with the complaint, but having a reason that outweighs the transgression.)
- Repeating yourself (Continue to restate your position without attempting to understand the other’s point of view.)
The forth horseman is withdrawal. When defensiveness isn’t getting anywhere, one spouse will often turn to silence or physically remove himself from the room. But that doesn’t work either. Instead of being neutral, withdrawal conveys disapproval, icy distance and smugness. The message is that I am disengaging from any meaningful interaction with you. If this does not result in divorce it will result in living lonely parallel lives.
What can you do if any of these four horsemen have invaded your marriage? Here are several suggestions.
- Calm down. When you feel your heart rate escalate during an argument, take a time out. When you are both calm, you can continue the conversation. But don’t just ignore the problem; make specific plans to continue the conversation.
- Speak non-defensively. If you can learn to listen to your spouse without becoming defensive and without triggering defensiveness in your partner, it will do wonders for your relationship.
- Validate. Try to see things from your spouse’s point of view. Tell her that you understand what she is saying. Acknowledge when you are wrong or apologize. When appropriate compliment your spouse. Sincere appreciation of what your spouse is doing goes a long way to maintain harmony in the home.
If you can keep the four horsemen out of your relationship and practice the above suggestions, you have come a long way towards making your relationship work. Additional resources are available at www.gottman.com