Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman are a couple well-known for their world-renowned work and research on what makes relationship work and what makes them fail. They have spent over 50 years researching thousands of couples and have made several breakthroughs in the world of relationships. Their work provides not just education, but evidence-based strategies that work.
The Gottmans describe arguing and the anger that often arises between couples as a forest fire that could eventually “burn their Relationship House to the ground”. The problem though is not in the conflict itself, but how couples handle it. Couples in unhealthy relationships often resort to “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.” These are weapons and shields couples use in their fights, and they could bring doom to a relationship. The good news is, there are antidotes for each one that can save the relationship and turn it into a happy one.
Understanding the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Criticism is when you shift your attention from a specific behavior or incident that bothered you and instead attack your partner’s personality or character. For example, instead of saying "I feel hurt when you forget to take out the trash," a criticism might be "You're so irresponsible and forgetful."While it is important and healthy to communicate what’s unpleasant to us, it’s never helpful to criticize their personality or character in the process.
Contempt takes criticism to a much “meaner” level. It is the most toxic of the Four Horsemen because it not only hurts your partner, but it also undermines the sense of emotional connection and mutual respect you have in the relationship. Contempt is an open sign of disrespect like insults, speaking down to your partner, blaming, calling names, rolling your eyes or sneering, conveying that you think little of them, sarcasm, or making fun of the other person with so-called “humor.”
Defensiveness often occurs as a natural response amidst an argument. It is a way of avoiding responsibility for your own actions or feelings, and it often takes the form of counterattacking or making excuses. When a person is defensive, that means they’re dealing with a lot of tension and stress. This makes it very difficult for them to listen to the other person, understand where they’re coming from, or empathize with them. They’re unable to tune into what their partner is saying, and they become more focused on defending themselves, making excuses, or firing back attacks.
Stonewalling is simply “shutting down”. One partner will just utterly refuse to respond verbally or non-verbally and become disconnected from the conversation – and likely from the relationship in the future. Partners who stonewall are experiencing a fight-or-flight response. Sounds seem louder, and everything signals “danger” or an attack. Physically, they experience increased heart rate, rapid and shallow breathing, sweating, dry mouth, and tense muscles or jaws. Rational thinking or problem solving becomes extremely challenging and highly unlikely.
P.S. It's important to note that all relationships have their ups and downs, and it's normal to experience some of these negative behaviors from time to time. However, if the Four Horsemen are a frequent occurrence in your relationship, it might be helpful to seek out couples therapy or other resources to help improve communication and strengthen your bond.
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