With the high divorce rates these days, is there anything psychology research can tell us about what makes a really healthy relationship and what leads to the break-up of a relationship?
It appears that there are some patterns of interaction in relationships that are particularly destructive. John Gottman, renowned expert in couples counselling, discovered four markers of relationship failure with an astonishing 93 percent accuracy in predicting divorce. He named them dramatically as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
They are criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stone-walling.
He says that even good relationships sometimes involve the first three patterns, but only deeply troubled relationships use contempt.
This blog looks at criticism and defensiveness and my next blog will look at defensiveness and contempt:
In criticism, you frame your complaints as if there’s something defective in your partner. It is a global description of a flaw in your partner’s personality. It’s different to complaining. Complaining can be a way of expressing dissatisfaction with a view to resolving a situation.
This is an example of a complaint from one partner to another:
“When I got in the car to go to work this morning the petrol tank was almost empty and I had to spend about 15 minutes going on a detour to fill up when I was already pushed for time. You used it yesterday evening. The same thing happened two weeks ago. Could you check it and fill up in future, especially on a Sunday evening?”
It’s clearly a situation that has caused upset in one partner and needs to be addressed. So what can you do? It’s important to try to work on the problem together, even if you disagree. You can toss it back and forth. You can examine it and hopefully work out a way forward which suits both parties.
A criticism for the above scenario would be:
“You never put petrol in the car, you don’t ever think about anyone else but yourself!”
This is suggesting that the problem is really THE OTHER PERSON and what they did or didn’t do is just more evidence of why they are such a problem. So, when you attack the PERSON, instead of complaining specifically about the behaviour you want to change, that’s criticism. It can be really challenging to break a chronic pattern of criticising but the first step is noticing that you are doing it. Then, when you feel you need to point out something about your partner’s behaviour that is upsetting you, make it specific to that particular situation and maybe if you feel it’s something you really have to talk about, choose a time when you are both calm and have time to talk it through.
The second horseman is defensiveness. We get defensive when we feel under attack, in an attempt to protect ourselves. Sometimes we do it by counter-attacking, as in:
“Me? What about you?”
Defensiveness gives the message that you will not be impacted or influenced by what your partner has to say. They cannot have an effect on you. This can in turn lead to the other partner feel that they are not being heard and often means that they become angry in response. Things can start to escalate quickly.
Good communication means we listen and don’t automatically “bat back” or deny all charges. With the example above:
Defensive approach: “I only drove a few miles across town on Sunday, whereas you drove right across the country to see the match Saturday afternoon. Why should I fill it up?”
A better alternative might be: “Yes, I can see it was really annoying for you to get into the car to go to work and find it was nearly empty. I honestly didn’t think to check but I will make sure I do in future.”
The ability to accept some responsibility, no matter how small, is a cure for defensiveness. You look for what you agree with, in what your partner says, not what you disagree with. You communicate: “I hear you. What you say matters.”
Defensiveness causes things to escalate FAST!
The key thing to remember is that all couples engage in criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling at times. When you or your partner cannot engage in conflict in a healthy manner and use the four horsemen consistently, it is time to seek help in establishing healthy communication tools. A good rule of thumb is to remember the 5:1 ratio — five positive interactions to every one negative interaction.
Gottman has a relationship quiz on his website which can help to tease out the patterns of communication in your own relationship::
Need some advice and support?
If you are experiencing relationship difficulties at the moment and would like to talk it over either by yourself or as a couple, in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
Book a counselling session today!
Other related articles: Stress and relationships, Control your Anger, Stress and Assertiveness, Self Esteem