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.
Cheers, Ben Bennett.