There are lots of moments throughout every day when we have the opportunity to continue to build a positive connection with our partner. These are often small, seemingly insignificant moments that offer us the opportunity to increase the overall positive feelings we have for one another. Throughout the day we and our partner (and children, friends, co-workers etc) make what the Gottmans called “bids for connection”. These are usually small, and often unconscious, attempts to connect; they could be as simple as starting a conversation, asking how your day was, asking how a meeting went, giving you a smile, or simply touching you. A bid can be verbal or non-verbal.
When our partner makes a bid for connection we have three basic choices: we can turn towards, turn away or turn against that bid. Turning towards would be any type of positive response to your partner, responding with a friendly “yes?” when they call your name or making a friendly response to their comment about the weather. In turning away, you are probably just not going to respond at all, and in turning against you might respond with an irritated “what now!?”
In their research, the Gottmans observed that happy couples turn towards each other approximately twenty times more than couples in distress during everyday, non-conflict discussions.
Check out this great little animation about improving your relationship by making and turning towards bids for connection. Any ads that might pop up come from YouTube, not from this site.
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.
Please leave a comment, I’d love some feedback. Feel free to share on social media.
Remember Mike and Genevieve from the last blog? Here they are again talking about an idea developed by marriage and relationship therapists Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. They are the co-founders of Imago Relationship Therapy, and one of the foundations of this model is the idea that we carry an unconscious image or “imago”, that is an amalgamation of the positive and negative attributes of our parents or primary caregivers. The story goes that we are unconsciously attracted to people who match up with the positives list in our “imago” and this is what pulls us into falling in love, only to find, as the rosy glow of early romance fades, that our lover also has a bunch of really annoying habits that match the negatives in our unconscious “imago”.
I like the saying “A theory is an idea in search of the truth”. Imago theory and the idea of our partners being an “imago match” seems to hold up a lot of the time with the couples I work with.
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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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.