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The Four Horsemen — 4 Behaviors That Destroy Relationships

Having a long and happy relationship is about so much more than planning a romantic night out for Valentine’s Day.

Sharing a romantic evening together is what commercial consumerism wants us to believe will make our relationships stronger. Don’t get me wrong — date night is great and needed, but it’s just scratching the surface of the real work we need to be doing if we want to be committed to our commitment.

I feel like my last column about relationships might have given people the wrong idea. I think I said something along the lines of marriage is a crapshoot and good luck! Well, maybe I felt that way on that particular day, but I also know relationships — healthy ones — take a lot of hard work.

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy in the last couple of years examining my marriage and finding ways to make it stronger, an anecdote to complaining about my marriage and fantasizing about it being better. I’m fascinated with the intricacies of relationships and often wonder how couples survive and thrive together through the years. Drs. John and Julie Gottman have been married nearly 40 years and have researched and published many books about relationships. They are the go-to experts and they have the research behind them. Together they started The Gottman Institute and I highly recommend visiting their website to access the tools they provide for couples, parents and professionals.

The Gottmans can spend a few minutes with a couple and with 90 percent accuracy predict whether their relationship will last. That’s a bit frightening, isn’t it? A part of me wants them to spend a few minutes with me and Matt, but there’s also that small piece of me that would be scared to know the truth.

Would you want to know your fate? Or would you want to know what you can do now to ensure your relationship will last?

The Gottmans discuss the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — basically four behaviors exhibited during a conflict that signal your relationship could be in trouble. Here they are, (get ready to feel personally attacked):

  1. Contempt — This includes mocking your partner, using sarcasm, name-calling, scoffing and eye rolling.

  2. Criticism — While it’s OK to make a complaint to your partner, it’s not OK to be critical of them. For example, it’s OK to say, “I was scared when you didn’t return my text because I thought something might have happened to you. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.” It’s not OK to say, “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. Why are you always so selfish?”

  3. Defensiveness — Defensiveness is usually how we respond to criticism — by making excuses, playing the victim and trying to turn the blame on our partner. This horseman only leads to escalating the fight so steer clear.

  4. Stonewalling — We might find ourselves turning to this horseman as a response to contempt. It’s when we shut down and stop responding to our partner.

You’re probably thinking, “Well shit, I do all those things when we fight. We’re doomed!” Don’t worry, it’s not too late to change your behaviors. As the Gottmans point out, changing our own behavior will often lead to changes in your partner’s behavior as well.

I’ve been guilty of contempt. I have laughed and shrugged off my partner’s feelings as ridiculous and I've used sarcasm. I have been critical by using phrases like “You always” or “You never.” I have been defensive by blaming my partner for something that wasn’t his fault. I stonewall my partner when my emotions get the best of me and I feel like I’m being attacked. Once you realize these behaviors don’t get you anywhere and you’re tired of having the same fight over and over again, you’ll know it’s time to try a different approach — just like I did. I was so frustrated and felt like I was doing everything I could do and my partner wasn’t pulling his weight in the relationship, but that simply wasn't true. Like I mentioned in my last column, it wasn’t until I started really working on myself that my relationship changed. It wasn’t until I found more self-compassion for myself that I could have more compassion and understanding for my husband. It wasn’t until I started forgiving myself for my own shortcomings that I was able to understand my husband’s feelings and offer more grace to him.

So if you’re ready to dig below the surface of your relationship, it’s a good conversation to start during your Valentine’s Day dinner with your partner. Get curious — ask them how they’re feeling about your relationship and what you can both work on together moving forward.

The Gottmans were interviewed on Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast recently and they talked about how many couples are struggling through this pandemic since we are stuck together in our homes with nowhere to escape. Then they also mentioned how it’s bringing some couples closer together because they have nowhere to go and are forced to talk through these difficult issues. I want to be the second couple in this scenario.

If you want to learn more about how to get there, visit The Gottman Institute page!

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