Relationships can be hard. Depending on your personal romantic experience and the relationships you saw modeled when you were a child, you may find it more difficult than others to communicate with your partner. Yet communication is one of the most important, if not the most important part of a relationship, so you want to make sure you are prioritizing connecting with your partner in an open and honest way.
Just as significantly, you also want to be sure not to communicate with your partner in certain ways. The Gottman Institute, the leading research institute on relationships, has developed a metaphor for relationships based on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Four Horsemen represent the end of times in the New Testament of the Bible, and are conquest, war, hunger, and death. Gottman uses the Four Horsemen to describe four communication styles that, based on their research, can signal the end of a relationship.
Criticism is not the same as voicing a concern or offering an area of improvement. The difference is that the latter two focus on specific problems, whereas criticism is an attack on your partner’s character.
Complaint: “We agreed that you would text me when you got home and you didn’t. I was worried because I thought we were on the same page about how important that is to me.”
Criticism: “You never remember when I ask you to do things. You’re selfish and you never think about my feelings.
The main problem with criticism is that it often paves the way for the other horsemen to make their way into the relationship. This means that it can create a negative pattern that eventually escalates into the next horseman, contempt.
Communicating with contempt is designed to make the other person feel badly about themselves. It’s beyond criticism; in addition to attacking their character, you leverage yourself as morally superior to them. This can manifest in genuinely mean behavior — name-calling, disrespect, mockery, eye-rolling, and scoffing.
Contempt: “I can’t believe you haven’t done the dishes yet. Are you really that lazy? I have worked all day and what have you done? Absolutely nothing. You’re pathetic.”
Contempt is not only toxic to a relationship, it can even have a negative impact on the immune system — research shows that contemptuous couples are more likely to suffer from infections. This may be due to the fact that contempt comes from holding onto negative thoughts about a partner.
Contempt is the biggest predictor of divorce, and therefore, is the most important of the horsemen for couples to address swiftly.
Defensiveness is generally a response to criticism. It is common for partners in rocky relationships to use defensiveness to protect themselves from criticism. They will make excuses and not take responsibility for a mistake.
Question: “Did you remember to let Carol know we aren’t coming to dinner?”
Defensive Response: “No. I was busy all day. You knew how busy I was today. Why didn’t you take care of that?”
Defensiveness aims to divert blame. Couples should instead aim to own their responsibility for a mistake and to recognize their partner’s perspective.
Stonewalling is usually a response to contempt. Stonewalling occurs when a partner withdraws, shuts down, and stops responding. They refuse to confront the issue at hand and instead evade the conversation by turning away, acting busy, or tuning out. Generally, stonewalling happens after the first three horsemen have appeared as a response to feeling physiologically overwhelmed. Chances are, when stonewalling occurs, the partner is not in a place to discuss things in a rational way. If you feel yourself stonewalling, it can be helpful to acknowledge that you’re feeling too emotional to talk about it, to take a break, and to come back to the conversation when you’re feeling calmer.
If you recognize the Four Horsemen in your relationship, there is still hope for improving your communication to be healthier. You may benefit from couples therapy in Palatine. Contact us to schedule an appointment today.