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Building strong relationships

My previous blogs looked at the findings from relationship research carried out by Dr John Gottman and what he calls “the four horsemen”: these are patterns of behaviour which accurately predict relationship breakdown: criticism and contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Gottman also put forward what he termed the antidotes to the four horsemen – proven ways of building strong relationships that are able to weather all storms! 

Gottman’s research showed that being able to identify the Four Horsemen in our conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication and conflict patterns, we must replace them with healthy, productive ones.

The Antidote to Criticism: Soft Start-Up

So criticism is one of what Gottman terms the four horsemen. A complaint focuses on a specific behaviour, but criticism attacks a person’s very character. The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame by using what he calls a soft start-up

This involves avoiding saying “you,” which can indicate blame, and instead talk about your feelings using “I” statements and express what you need in a positive way. Simply put: What do I feel? What do I need?

An example of a soft start-up

Criticism: “You always leave all the washing up to me. Why are you always so selfish?”

Antidote: “I’m feeling absolutely exhausted and I need to vent. Could you give me a hand with this washing up and we can both sit down and have a chat and a cuddle?”

In this example, the antidote starts with “I feel,” leads into “I need,” and then respectfully asks to fulfill that need. There’s no blame or criticism, which prevents the discussion from escalating into an argument.

Complain without blame

Gottman says simply, “the antidote to criticism is to complain without blame,” which means gently expressing our own needs using “I” statements, and not resorting to blameful “you” statements.

Here’s a helpful guideline—if we’re trying to address a problem with our partner, we should think of these two questions before speaking: 

“What emotions do I feel?”

“What do I need from my partner in this situation?”

Examining our own emotions and needs allow us to reframe the problem to be about us, instead of our partner’s flaws. 

Giving our partner the opportunity to “repair” the problem, without blaming them for it, is a healthier, more productive approach to managing conflict. When we shift from blaming statements to ones focused on our own needs and finding mutual solutions, we also ward off the other horsemen, like contempt and defensiveness, by nipping them in the bud. 

The Antidote to Contempt: “Build a culture of appreciation and respect”

Contempt can be a hard one to overcome, but as it is the single biggest predictor of relationship break down, mastering it is at the crux of any healthy relationship. Gottman says that the antidote to contempt is to slowly but surely build a culture of appreciation and respect within your relationship. The simple short-term antidote to contempt is to “describe your feelings and needs.” This is an in-the-moment solution, similar to the antidote for criticism.

It means switching your communication to productive, positive “I” statements, like:

“I need some more help with the household chores at the weekend and I need us to sit down together at some point and have a chat about how we can find a way to get the chores done and still have time to chill and relax and have fun.” 

A long term strategy

But the long-term solution is harder and much more important. It takes time, often starts small, often doesn’t feel right or come naturally, and requires a sustained effort over time. However research has shown that by voicing our own needs and talking about our own feelings to our partners, we will reduce resentment. At the same time, it is important to voice appreciation and compliments towards our partners, to very deliberately continue to view them in a positive light.  Gottman also recommends doing “small, positive things for your partner every day” as a way to start.

Watch out for habitual sarcasm or “jokes” that aren’t really jokes

Those of us who are sarcastic or like to tease might need to take a harder look at whether our “jokes” are actually funny, or if they might be hurting our partner and a symptom of resentment.  If the joke is at the expense of another person, is it really fun? We can still poke fun at something without putting others down.

The 5:1 Magic Ratio

One finding that came up in Gottman’s research, was that couples who stay together and build strong relationships, practise the 5:1 “magic ratio” of positive to negative interactions. If we have five or more positive interactions for every one negative interaction, then we are making regular deposits into what he calls our “emotional bank account”, which keeps our relationship in the green.

Contempt: “You were late again collecting the children from the childminder. What kind of a parent are you?” (Rolls eyes.)

Antidote: “I know this is the busiest time of year in your business, but being late collecting the children, upsets them and the childminder.  Could you make sure you prioritise and plan ahead on the days when it’s your turn to collect? I know it doesn’t happen very often – you are a great dad! ”

The antidote here works because it expresses understanding – the other partner is busy and stressed with work and being late isn’t because they don’t care or are a bad parent – and so they do not make a contemptuous statement about their partner or take any position of moral superiority. Instead, this antidote is a respectful request, and it ends with a statement of appreciation.

Favourite resources 

These are some of my favourite writers and speakers about communication:

  1. Say What You Mean – A Mindful Approach to Non-Violent Communication –  book by Oren Jay Sofer 
  2. Rick Hanson – a series of excellent podcasts he has made with his son Forest about all kinds of human relationships . Rick is a highly respected psychologist and author.   
  3. Dr John Gottman – world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, John Gottman has conducted 50 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples. He predicted divorce with 90% accuracy based on the first three minutes of a conversation. What he noticed was that couples who started their conflict conversation with criticism and elicited defensiveness in their partner ended up divorcing whereas couples who used “gentle start ups” or began their conversation expressing their feelings and needs stayed together.His excellent website contains numerous videos and blogs about his work and findings.
  4. Esther Perel “Where should we begin?” Psychotherapist Esther Perel is the New York Times bestselling author of The State of Affairs and Mating in Captivity. Her TED talks have generated more than 20 million views and she is also the host    of the popular podcast Where Should We Begin?    3 TEDtalks. See also: 


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Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541

See also: CommunicationCommunication Styles