By Emily Erickson
I grew up surrounded by very few examples of healthy relationships, with “f*** you” thrown out as frequently as affirmations of love and affection. Arguments would begin in attempts at discreteness, but would almost always evolve from heated whispers to shouting matches of oscillating insults and digs at character.
The idea of resolving conflict through thoughtful conversation or with a blood pressure below that of a raging bull felt fictitious, the rituals of a far off land, performed by aliens far more evolved than human beings.
I reflect on this conflict without blame or anger toward my parents, but rather, as a phenomena of unhealthiness that affects so many people that engage in relationships and cohabitation today.
And although I’ve managed to escape my childhood as a believer in the possibility of a life partner (after an extensive string of bad relationship habits to correct), I find myself transfixed by the psychology of it all.
Dr. John Gottman, founder of the Gottman Institute, has been studying the psychology of relationships and emotion through psycho-physiological measurement since 1975. With his colleague Dr. Robert Levenson, he developed a system that could predict divorce in couples with over 90-percent accuracy, after spending as little as an hour with them.
From this 14-year-longitudinal study, he derived, “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” or four indicators that, when present even during times of conflict, almost guaranteed the couple being studied would split up, succumbing to a seemingly inevitable end to their unhealthy partnership.
The first of the horsemen Gottman discovered was Criticism, or ascribing flaws to your partner’s character, instead of to flaw in situational behavior. For example, criticism is calling your boyfriend an asshole, assigning that to his character, instead of believing him to be a genuinely good person, just temporarily in a situation prompting behaviors of assholeness.
The next of the horsemen identified by Gottman was Defensiveness. He explains that “when you attempt to defend yourself from a perceived attack with a counter complaint, you are being defensive.” If you meet your partner’s, “I can’t believe you’re late again!” with, “Well, at least I don’t drive like a maniac,” that is defensive behavior, and it isn’t a habit of conflict resolution in healthy relationships.
Then, there is the Contempt member of the four horsemen; the proverbial Grim Reaper. Contempt is best understood as any behavior, verbal or nonverbal, in which you situate yourself above your partner. Like criticism, this is attributing some character flaw to your partner, but even more than their flaw, is thinking that you are better than your partner because of it. Nonverbal examples of this behavior include sneering or eye rolling when your partner is talking, or verbally, something along the lines of (to the therapist), “Hunny, why don’t you start by describing your day, because that surely can’t take long.”
The final of the horsemen discovered by Gottman was Stonewalling, or the act of shutting down completely during conflict, either physically leaving the conversation or simply withdrawing into oneself. Gottman explains, “The stonewaller may look like they don’t care, but they more often are overwhelmed and trying to calm themselves down … This seldom works because their partner assumes they don’t care enough about the problem to talk about it.” It’s a vicious circle.
The interesting thing about identifying these communication failures is that they are entirely correctable. Even better, they are much less likely to occur when measures are taken by both partners to repair and foster connection and play.
When you are feeling close to your partner, understanding them as your friend above all else, you are less likely to engage in the negative conflict behaviors that lead to relationship breakdowns.
Now, never having been married, I don’t personally claim to be an authority on marital success, nor do I have the life experience or years spent in successful long-term relationships to even join the conversation from my own point of view. However, the research shows that the relationships built on a foundation of mutual respect and admiration are the ones that do well.
And, as a gal whose formative years were spent seeing the alternative, giving Gottman’s theory a try feels like a happy concession to the sneer. Or worse … the eye roll.
Emily Erickson is a freelance writer and bartender originally from Wisconsin, with a degree in sociology and an affinity for playing in the mountains.
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