Relationships can be hard sometimes. There are negative emotions that can lead to misunderstanding, disagreements, and arguments. However, it is possible to foster great relationships in the midst of disagreements by avoiding certain behaviors.
Indeed, Dr. John Gottman, a renowned marriage therapist, has conducted extensive research that shows that even in happy marriages couples fail to resolve over 65% of long standing disagreements. The lesson in these studies is that conflict does not kill marriages. It’s the way couples handle conflict that kills marriages.
Gottman points to four specific behaviors one or both partners in a marriage exhibit towards the other that can predict the failure of the relationship in 95% of cases. He calls these behaviors the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The Four Horsemen
1. Criticism. When you criticize someone you make your dissatisfaction with the way he or she is behaving into a personal assault. For instance, let’s say the person you are in a relationship with doesn’t place the cap on the toothpaste, even though you ask him or her to do so all the time.
Over time frustration builds and instead of complaining about the cap not being placed on the toothpaste you start to attack the person. You may go from saying something like,
“It really frustrates me when I go to brush my teeth and the cap has been left off the toothpaste. It’s not sanitary, and the toothpaste gets all hard. I thought we agreed that you would put the cap back on after you use it,”
to saying something like,
“You left the cap off the toothpaste again. I cannot believe how inconsiderate you are! Why can’t you do a simple thing like put the bloody cap on the toothpaste after you use it?”
Do you see the difference? In the first statement, you are lodging a legitimate complaint in a way that does not imply your partner has a character flaw. As frustration builds, you begin to assault your partner’s character in the second statement. Criticism has sneaked into your relationship.
Generally, a complaint is very specific. Complaints address specific behaviors, like not putting the cap on the toothpaste.
Criticism is much more general, and moves into the realm of personal attack and accusation. Criticisms make judgments not about behaviors, but about the person. As such, criticisms are more likely to result in your partner becoming defensive, which ultimately escalates the conflict, leaving the door open for the next horseman to enter into the relationship.
2. Contempt is an escalation of criticism. When you show contempt for another you intend to insult or psychologically harm them. You seek to tear down their sense of self and diminish them. Contempt is fueled by negative thoughts about the person’s character, utter lack of respect for the person, and a complete lack of admiration or regard for the person.
When contempt enters into the relationship it is difficult to even remember what it was about the other person that you once valued. The relationship becomes defined by conflict and negative sentiment override. What that means is that you know longer think the best of your friend or partner’s intentions. Suddenly, you jump to conclusions and assign the worst intentions to his or her actions, and fall into a pattern of negative automatic thinking about the person. You can no longer see the other person’s positive qualities.
Contempt presents itself in several ways in relationships. The most obvious is insulting the other and calling the other person names. These are open and obvious attempts to harm the other person. Sarcasm is another way contempt manifests. This form of hostile humor can be extremely hurtful to others because of the way it is delivered. Perhaps also because it takes more effort to insult somebody in this manner. Like sarcasm, mocking the other person is a subtle form of insult. Mockery is harmful because it devalues the other person as a human being. Finally, aggressive body language can convey contempt, even when words do not. Snarling, glaring, rolling your eyes, etc. are very powerful indicators of contempt.
The most damaging aspect of contempt is that over a period of time it results in the disappearance of admiration and respect in the relationship. The consequence is not only the growth of negative sentiment override, but the complete disappearance of its opposite – positive sentiment override. The relationship becomes defined by conflict and a lack of positive regard for each other.
It is vital to recognize the beginnings of contempt in the relationship, and work extremely hard to abolish it, if the relationship is to survive.
3. Defensiveness follow contempt into relationships. Once positive sentiment override is replaced by negative sentiment override each person in the relationship automatically assumes the worse about the other. Even in minor disagreements, both parties will feel attacked by the other regardless of how he or she is approached, and assume a defensive posture. Each party denies responsibility for and blames the other person for the problems in the relationship. Defensiveness becomes a reflex to ward off a perceived attack by the other.
Defensiveness can occur in relationships in many ways. The most obvious are denying responsibility for one’s own actions, or making excuses rather than trying to fix problems.
When someone becomes defensive they may fall victim to cognitive distortions, such as disagreeing with negative mind reading, which is a response to your partner making negative assumptions about your intentions or thoughts. Instead of replying to these negative assumptions in a positive way, you may lash out or fight back, further reinforcing negative sentiment override and defensiveness in the relationship.
Defensive people often deny and raise counter-accusations. This is a favorite of politicians and intelligence officers worldwide! Essentially, the person will deny all accusations, and attempt to deflect attention from his/herself onto the other person by accusing them of something else, or the same thing.
These are only a few examples of defensive behaviors. As you can probably see, not much positive communication occurs when one or both parties are defensive. This obstruction of communication means nothing ever gets resolved, and conflicts escalate.
4. Stonewalling is the coup de grace. Basically, one or both people in the relationship get tired of fighting, and begin to withdrawal. It’s simply easier to remove themselves from confrontation, either physically or emotionally, than to continue to engage and attempt to resolve the dispute.
It is important to keep in mind that retreating temporarily from conflict to calm down and think about the situation is very different than stonewalling. When people stonewall they have no intention of resolving the conflict. They simply wish to avoid it. Effectively, the individual who withdraws sends the message, intentionally or unintentionally, that the relationship is no longer worth the effort.
On the other hand, taking a break from the conflict to calm down and think about the situation, with the intent to return to the issue and resolve it, sends a very different message, particularly if the withdrawing partner explains the reason for the withdrawal and his or her intention to discuss the issue further when things settle down.
The Four Horsemen are introduced primarily in the context of intimate relationships. However, I believe that they can have devastating impact on any relationship. Imagine how you would feel if a good friend of yours showed contempt for everything you said, or simply dismissed any concerns you may have about the way he or she is treating you. Even in the context of professional relationships, these actions would be disturbing and would certainly not foster teamwork or cooperation.
For more detailed descriptions of the Four Horsemen, and on making relationships work, I highly recommend reading Gottman’s works. You can order them below.