Think about a conversation with a treasured loved one that brings a smile to your face. You know the conversations I’m talking about. The first time your son or daughter says, “I love you!” The last lunch you had with your best friend before you moved across the country. Recall the most recent time you and your partner sat together in a calm and quiet place and spoke softly about your dreams for each other and for your future. Sacred moments of deep connection satisfy our minds, our bodies, and our spirits. They are the moments we live for.
Sadly, the complexities of our modern lives and the unrelenting stress keep many couples reacting to their partners instead of responding with curiosity, kindness, and patience. While perfect communication in every conversation is an unrealistic goal, it is possible to adopt an attitude of just having the next encounter go a little better than the last one. Relationship researchers and couples therapists John and Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute recommend cultivating an atmosphere of kindness and admiration with the couple relationship. A great place to begin is recognizing and counter what The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. When present in a relationship, the Four Horsemen, Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling, indicate high levels of relationship dissatisfaction. Couples who both recognize and counter with the antidotes to the Four Horsemen will have an increasing ability to stop quarrels before they become damaging relationship ruptures.
- Criticism. Our old friend! This is where we state our complaints by projecting them as defects in our partner’s personality. An example is forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning and then accusing your partner of stupidity for not reminding you. “If you weren’t so dumb and so unorganized, the dry cleaning would not be an issue!”
Ouch! You can head this one off by using “I” statements and talking about how you feel, what your feeling is about in a calm, neutral way, and then stating what you need. This is what John and Julie Gottman call “A Gentle Start-Up.” A summary of the Gentle Start-up looks like this:
- I Feel
- About What
- I Need
- Defensiveness. There in time of need! We all need to protect ourselves from people trying to cross our emotional, psychological, and physical boundaries. Defensiveness in the context of a quarrel with your partner often becomes indignation or innocent victimhood and, according to John Gottman, is used to deflect a perceived attack. Instead of a “we are in this together” stance, defensiveness conveys an “I am right, and you are wrong” feeling. The cure for defensiveness is to consider and state responsibility for even a part of the issue or problem. Consider the perpetual disagreement over doing the dishes: “It’s not my fault you can’t figure out how to keep the kitchen clean!” Taking responsibility sound more like, “You are right; I could do a better job of getting my dishes rinsed and into the dishwasher.”
- Contempt. The most destructive of the Four Horseman and the most significant predictor of divorce or termination of the relationship. Contempt must be eliminated for the relationship to survive. Contemptuous statements come from a position of superiority and are meant to belittle, invalidate, and minimize. John and Julie Gottman hold that the antidote for contempt is for the partners to build a culture of respect and appreciation in their relationship. And to consistently express your own feelings and needs. Example:You are a total loser! Describing your own feelings and needs sounds like: “I feel hurt when you disregard the everyday chores that help our lives run smoothly. I need to have a talk about why the chores are so hard.”
- Stonewalling. It literally makes your partner feel like they are talking to an object made of stone. Withholding verbal and non-verbal cues that indicate you are hearing and understanding what your partner is saying leaves both people shut down and fuels emotional disconnection. Turn Stonewalling around by recognizing your feelings and practice physiological self-soothing so that you can stay present with your partner.
Physiological Self-Soothing promotes well-being and is a great way to teach yourself how to stay calm in an emotionally tense situation. Physiological Self-Soothing is the subject of my next Blog.