Once upon a time I was a young man attending university. I went to Massey in Palmerston North, and a couple of times a year I enjoyed a day at the races with my friends. A few days before race day I would buy a copy each of Friday Flash and Best Bets and after a couple of hours study I would have selected three or four horses for each race that I thought, on paper at least, had a chance of placing. Then come Saturday, off I would go to Awapuni with my friends and $20, all set for a day out. Before each race I would watch the horses I had chosen warming up. I would settle on the horse that I thought was moving the easiest and then rush to the “Tote” to place a dollar each way. At the time, it was a fun way to spend a day and after paying for my entry and some lunch and refreshments I usually returned home with change from the twenty, and sometimes a bit extra. My system only worked if I could observe the horses moving, and even then it only guaranteed a fun day out, nothing else.
So what does this have to do with relationships? Well, during my professional development studies I came across a guy called Prof John Gottman, who I have mentioned in previous blogs. Gottman has been able to predict, with 90% accuracy, which married couples are likely to separate sometime in the next five years. Obviously, Gottman is much better at predicting this sad outcome than I was at predicting the winner of the Awapuni Gold Cup. He does this by observing couples interacting with each other over a weekend that they spend together in a special laboratory, set up like a motel, at the University of Washington. The behaviours that he uses to predict relationship breakdown he labels as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, taking the term from the Bible, in which the four horsemen respectively represent conquest, war, famine and death.
Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Criticism. In the sense that it’s being used here criticism refers to describing a problem as a flaw in your partner’s personality, i.e. “you’re lazy” or “you’re a so and so”. Statements starting with “you always…” or “you never….” fit in here too. We all get angry or frustrated somewhere along the way; that’s part of life, but please don’t criticise your partner’s character in anger or use abusive language. Instead, focus on the problematic behaviour and use a gentle start-up
Defensiveness. Defensiveness is an attempt to protect ourselves, but it usually comes across as a denial of responsibility with shades of blaming the other person. It can take the form of excuses, denial or counter-attack. The solution is to accept responsibility for at least some part of the problem, no matter how small.
Stonewalling. Stonewalling isn’t a common term in New Zealand. It refers to someone withdrawing from or not participating in an interaction directed at them but staying in the same room or in the vicinity of the person trying to talk to them. For example crossing your arms and staring at the ceiling or watching T.V. with no cues that you are listening at all to your partner. Statistically, men do this more than women as part of the distancer-pursuer dynamic. Stonewalling is different to giving the cold shoulder; stonewalling is immediate, whereas the cold shoulder can go on for days or weeks. The antidote to stonewalling is for the listener to keep breathing, stay calm and stay connected and related to their partner.
Contempt. With regard to relationship breakdown, contempt is often terminal. It is the single best predictor of divorce or separation in both heterosexual and same-sex couples. Interestingly (well interesting in a morbid kind of way) Gottman can use the measure of a husband’s contempt to predict the number of infectious illnesses his wife will have in the next four years! Contempt is attitudinal as much as it is behavioural; it’s about assuming an air of superiority or condescention and is often accompanied by putdowns and belligerence. The path away from allowing contempt to come galloping into your relationship (right behind the criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling) lies in creating a relationship culture of fondness and appreciation.
Below is a great little animation that demonstrates the “The Four Horsemen” and their antidotes.
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When I was growing up, I occasionally heard the phrase “their marriage is on the rocks”. At that time in my life, my family would spend part of the summer holidays at Ohope Beach, or sometimes up the coast from Gisborne. My dad & I would spend time fishing off some rocky outcrop, with one eye on the line and the other on the sea surging in and out at our feet. Being a visually imaginative kid, the phrase “… on the rocks” always conjured up a painful image of a couple clinging on desperately while the surf battered them mercilessly and their boat called “Marriage” broke-up around them. You probably don’t have to have spent time in boats to know that keeping clear of the rocks is a bit of an imperative.
“On the rocks” isn’t a phrase that I hear much anymore, but that’s not because people aren’t breaking up. A recent article in the New Zealand Herald’s Weekend magazine cited the New Zealand divorce rate as being approximately 33% and research I have read suggests common law relationships probably have a higher separation rate than marriages. The article also stated that several British studies had found that more than 33% of people who had divorced regretted their decision within five years. Most divorce or separation is concentrated in the first ten years of the marriage or a committed relationship and is often avoidable. A majority of divorced people cite the reason for divorce as being that they simply drifted apart.
So how do you avoid drifting onto the rocks? Dr John Gottman of the Gottman Institute has conducted research on marriage for over 40 years, and he reckons that following the seven principles listed below will go a long way towards making sure you steer a course for a happy relationship.
Seek help early. The average couple waits far too long to seek help – don’t be the average couple.
Edit yourself. The happiest couples bite their tongues when discussing touchy topics. They don’t spit out every critical thought they have.
Soften your “start up.” Arguments are often created because of the way a discussion is started. Ambushing your partner with criticism and blame is a surefire way of creating escalating conflict. Bringing up problems gently and without blame works much better.
Accept influence. In a study of heterosexual relationships, the man’s ability to be influenced by the woman was seen as crucial to establishing a successful relationship. As a generality, women are well practised at accepting influence from men, so a true partnership only occurs when men can do the same thing.
Have high standards. Refusing to accept hurtful behaviour from one another right from the beginning of the relationship equals a happier relationship later on.
Learn to back-up from an argument and to repair the disconnect. Happy couples have learnt how to skillfully back out of a potentially escalating argument and how to reconnect after they have trodden on their partner’s toes. They are good at initiating and accepting repair attempts and at being patient and considerate while negotiating tricky waters.
Focus on the positives. A good relationship must have a rich climate of positivity. Happy couples focus on their partner’s positive attributes and on what’s going well rather than concentrating on the negatives.
When things are going well in your relationships, either at home or out in the world, what are you doing to create and maintain the positive connections? Leave a comment; I’d love to hear from you.
Every time a couple tackles a thorny problem requiring change, they go through a predictable sequence of steps to make that change. I believe the same sequence happens when parents and children, or even flat-mates, are engaged in solving a problem that requires change. The sequence of change involves a journey from denial to commitment and action; but its not a linear journey, it usually has its share of roadblocks, false starts, unhelpful detours etc, so commitment and perseverance are big factors in success.
Watch the video below to see Pete Pearson and Ellyn Bader go through the stages of change as they conquer the problem of clutter in their home. Pete and Ellyn are the co-founders of The Couples Institute in San Fransisco, and Ellyn was one of my teachers in couples therapy a few years back.
Please leave a comment by clicking on the reply button above, or in the box below, I would love to hear from you.