Ever heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? I’m not referring to those of the biblical John the Divine, but the Four Horsemen of John Gottman. Dr. Gottman is the foremost authority on couples thanks to several decades of research at the Gottman Relationship Institute’s famous “Love Lab” in Seattle, WA. According to him these are the four types of communication that spell doom for a relationship.
John Gottman has studied thousands of couples and can tell with 94% accuracy within 15 minutes of meeting a couple whether they will be divorced in three years or not! How does he do this? He looks at the ratio of the Four Horsemen in their communication styles. When the Four Horsemen dominate communication the couple will divorce.
You might think anger is one of the Four Horsemen, but it isn’t. Many people worry about showing anger in their relationship, but anger, in and of itself, is not a problem. Anger is a very healthy reaction to situations that need to change, such as an unfair one. Your anger lets you know you need to take action, make a change, speak up, leave, etc.
Where anger gets tricky in relationships is when couples use it to engage one of the Four Horsemen. These guys will tank a relationship very quickly.
So what are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in a relationship?
Attacking your partner’s character or personality is a huge no-no. Any critical phrase that begins with “You always” or “You never” needs to be avoided. You can criticize the behavior without saying something negative about the person.
Consider this: “You never bother to ask me what I want to watch on TV. You are always so self-centered!” as opposed to “I would like it if you would ask me if there are any programs I would like to watch.”
When a person gets defensive, it becomes very difficult for them to hear what the other person is saying. Sometimes a defensive person figures the best defense is a good offense and counter attacks. Other ways of being defensive include denying responsibility, making excuses and whining.
Openly showing disrespect for your partner such as insulting them, making them the butt of a mean joke, rolling your eyes or making faces while they are talking are all forms of contempt. Gottman found that, in particular, if the wife shows contempt for her husband there is virtually no chance of saving the marriage.
Stonewallers appear to just withdraw from the conversation and may even leave the room. It looks like they simply don’t care about the relationship. In actuality, they are usually overwhelmed and need to check out and calm down, but this is a very negative pattern. Gottman found that men engage in stonewalling more often than women.
Don’t panic! Every couple finds themselves using one of the Four Horsemen now and then, but when this becomes the primary way couples communicate, it spells disaster. However, Gottman offers an antidote for each of the Four Horsemen.
Instead of criticizing, he says to “Complain without blame.” “I don’t like picking up your wet towels. Would you please be sure to hang them up?”
Gottman says, “Take responsibility” rather than become defensive. “You’ve got a valid point. I did forget to pay that bill. I’m sorry you couldn’t get gas in your car today because of it.”
Building a culture of appreciation for your partner is the cure to contempt. “You had a bad day? Tell me all about it.” Asking about a person’s day might be one of the most important questions we ask. The key is to listen without offering solutions (unless your partner asks you for an opinion). Just try to name how they must have felt. When you get the feeling right, your partner will feel validated by you and that you really listened to them. Even if you come close, they know you’re listening. “Gosh, when your boss didn’t listen to you, it must have made you feel both angry and hurt.” “I bet you were afraid when that happened.”
And learning to physiologically soothe yourself will help the stonewaller stay present. Otherwise this quickly becomes a cycle of one critical person pursuing the other who won’t stay present. Start with taking a deep breath, and for tips to reduce anxiety and stress, .
Couples have a way of interacting that can either be accepting or rejecting of the other person. Dr. Gottman calls these “bids for connection.” Sometimes you reach out for the hand of your partner, or give them a smile or a wink. When you do this, you expect the reassurance of them taking your hand, smiling or winking back at you. Healthy couples have about 20 positive accepting interactions to every one negative or rejecting one. At a minimum for a relationship to work there must be a ratio of at least five to one positive interactions. When a relationship has one negative interaction to one positive interaction it will ultimately fail. Do you want to know how you rate? Take this quiz to assess your style of bidding.
Relationship expert, Dr. Ellen Kreidman advocates the 10 second kiss. Before leaving for work each day, and upon coming home, give your mate a 10 second kiss. Couple that with a 20 second hug and you’ve just spent the most important 1 minute of your day fostering your relationship. To parents she says, “The best gift you can ever give your children is a loving relationship with your mate. The happiest, most well-adjusted children come from a home where mommy and daddy love each other.”
What else can couples do to improve their relationships?
Be friends. Learn to admire qualities about the other person. Gottman suggests we need to know our partner really well. Here’s a fun short quiz you can take to see how well you know your partner. If your score is low, your work is cut out for you – time to get to know more about the most important person in your life.
Go out on a date – without the kids – once a week. It is important to spend time focused on your relationship, and one night a week for the two of you is a minimum. You don’t have to do anything expensive. Pack a picnic and head to . Take a walk together in . Watch the sunset from the harbor. Or farm the kids out and fix a candlelit dinner while you enjoy a DVD snuggled up on the couch.
Schedule time to be intimate, especially if you have kids. It is perfectly acceptable to have a closed door policy with your kids. They need to understand that mommy and daddy need their alone time and the kids are not included. There are multiple schools of thought about having kids in your bed. But at least some of the time, the kids need to know they are not welcome while you have your intimate time together. In turn, your kids can understand that it is okay for them to have their own private time in their room. Everybody can have their own “Do Not Disturb” sign and learn to respect healthy boundaries.
Remember the old adage your mother said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”? That is good advice for a relationship. Don’t say everything you’re thinking. If you have something unkind or critical to say, keep it to yourself. When you do bring up something that may be perceived as a hot topic, do it in a gentle way, and try to keep arguments from escalating by employing humor, validating your partner’s feelings, or backing down. Learn when to let arguments drop. Winning every battle will lead to losing the campaign in this case.
The relationship with our partners is the most important one we have. Children will eventually grow up and move away. Our partner is the one who will be there through thick and thin if we play our cards right.
What’s the simplest way to improve your relationship? Give your partner a long slow kiss and a hug today when s/he returns home. It’s well known that a happy relationship leads to better health. Try it – it’s just what the doctor ordered!