As I sit here recovering from the last argument with my husband, I'm reminded that fights are inevitable. I love my husband dearly and sometimes we just can't agree. That's ok! Before we got married we worked through The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver to "divorce-proof" our relationship.
Their work, in something they call "the marriage lab," discusses "four horsemen" that lead to the demise of relationships. They do not come in any particular order and just because these exist in your relationship right now does not mean that you will break up. The point is to become aware of their existence and shift the power of each horseman.
1. Criticism - Do you know the difference between a complaint and a criticism? How do you voice what you need from your partner? A complaint addresses a singular event or action with which you have a problem, as in "I'm really upset you didn't use a coaster because now there is a ring on our wood table." A criticism, however, attacks the core being of another person, even in something that may seem trivial and suddenly gains more significance than it deserves, as in "I'm really upset that you did not use a coaster. You are always so lazy! Now we have a ring on the wood table forever. Why don't you care? You never care about my things! We can never get nice things?"
2. Contempt - Contempt includes sarcasm, name calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, hostile humor, and cynicism. Contempt does not include repairs. Repairs occur in the middle of an argument when one partner tries to make the other laugh to relieve some of the stress of the situation. Contempt, on the other hand, tells your partner that you are disgusted with him or her, ultimately leading to more conflict rather than the possibility of resolution.
3. Defensiveness - Defensiveness usually arrives in response to an attacking partner. However, it does not achieve the desired effect since it unintentionally blames the partner for the problem--it doesn't end the conflict, it only increases it.
4. Stonewalling - When the listener tunes out and shuts down when the speaker is talking. In any conversation, the listener gives the cues on whether they were listening or paying attention. Usually, this horseman arrives after the other three become too overwhelming. When the listener starts stonewalling, not listening and not interested, leading to more conflict. Ultimately, it leads to more conflict.
When identifying the horsemen in your relationship, make it a game rather than an accusatory experience. Helping yourself notice these moments as much as you help your partner. Make a chart that helps both partners in the relationship identify when each of you let the horseman take over. Make sure you allow each partner to identify their own moments and honor them for making this acknowledgement.
I thoroughly recommend reading this book as it has helpful tips to promote and strengthen any relationship.
Sara Hulan, MA, Marriage and Family Therapist Registered Associate IMF #97806,