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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Do you do a good job of listening to your partner? If you answered “yes”, my colleague Pete Pearson from The Couples Institute thinks that you might have a bit of trouble convincing him that you are right. He says that a couple of years ago he started asking most couples during their first appointment if they think they listen very well to their partners. The vast majority said, “Yes I think I listen pretty well – but my partner is not so hot!” Now that’s an interesting conundrum; if each person is saying the same thing about their partner, that they don’t listen very well, then somebody’s not listening, right? “Yep, but it’s not me!”
Pete goes on to say that most people have a reasonable idea about what their partners major complaints about them are, and that’s also my experience when meeting with a couple for the first time. However he goes on to say that where a lot of people struggle is in being able to answer the following question with any confidence, “What do you think you do that evokes in your partner feelings of being loved, valued, appreciated or respected?” In other words, what is your partners love language? Pete says that if you not only modify or stop doing some of the things that your partner finds difficult, but also take the time to discover what it is that they appreciate you doing you will be well on the way to creating a much more satisfying relationship.
You can read Pete’s post here. I think Pete might have a couple of lines missing from the end of his post, so scroll down to the comments at the bottom of his page for clarification. I hope you find his post helpful. It would be great if you left a comment to let me know what you think.
There you are, once again, trying to talk sense to your partner and all they can do is argue back! Or maybe its the other way around, they are trying to get something across to you, but you have already got your back up and you are only listening long enough to be able to formulate your defence or counter-attack. Sound familiar?
Several bodies of research show that most conflicts that have a painful “charge” are only 10% about the present situation and 90% about some past wound that is causing pain now. We don’t tend to act very logically or consciously in situations that carry an emotional charge, and consequently we often make matters worse when we would like them to be better.
When there is tension in the air we really owe it to ourselves, our partner, our relationship, to slow down, make a really conscious effort to be constructive and if you are on the receiving end, make a big effort to really understand your partner.
Now this is not an easy thing to do by any means. Below is a neat little video of a real life couple demonstrating Imago Therapies “Couples Dialogue”. This video can also be found as part of a series on the Imago International website here
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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.
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Do you tend to just jump right in to solving your partners problems as soon as you hear them, and then wonder why they get upset with you when all you are trying to do is be helpful? Frustrating right? If this is you the chances are you are a man, or the go-to problem solver type.
As a generalisation women tend to respond to a problem by turning to their friends, and sharing the problem. The experience of the other person getting them and responding with understanding and empathy has a connecting and calming effect that’s facilitated by the production of feel-good chemicals in the brain such as oxytocin. This calming effect reinforces connection in the face of a problem.
A majority of men on the other hand tend to respond to a problem as if it were a threat, something to be repelled or avoided rather than an opportunity for connection. When we experience a real or perceived threat we get a shot of adrenaline, which is a fight or flight activator and pushes us towards action rather than connection or curiosity. So we want to jump right in and solve the problem, but in doing this our partners are left feeling unseen and disconnected.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes our partners don’t just want us to listen. Sometimes they would like some kind of help or advice, but you will be in a much better place to offer what’s needed or ask about that after you have really tuned in to them and got what it is they are experiencing.
Ask your partner to use the phrase “Its not about the nail…..” next time you are missing them, and the chance to connect, by being unhelpfully helpful.