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Complexity of Marriage Therapy, Part Two: Dr. John Gottman and What Predicts Divorce?

Today we’ll examine one aspect of Dr. John Gottman’s work. He provides clear, evidence-based information distilled from his many years of research about what predicts divorce.

When there’s a lot of negativity in a relationship, he’s identified four key elements of what underlies this negativity and what dynamic predicts divorce. He calls these four emotional relationship dynamics the “Four Horsemen.” They are:

  • Criticism

  • Contempt

  • Defensiveness

  • Stonewalling

If there is a lot of this stuff in your relationship, it’s no wonder you’re feeling distressed. Dr. Gottman found that we all have elements of these negative aspects in our long term relationships. However, happier couples had much less of these negative elements than distressed couples.

Criticism: This covers a lot of negative projection onto your partner. We’ve all seen the woman at a party complaining loudly that her husband doesn’t keep up with the house repairs. We’ve all seen the husband who remarks that his wife has gained weight and could use a gym membership. Icks-nay on the arcissism-nay.

Contempt. This is when you build up the idea that your partner is dumb, stupid, deficient. We’ve all seen that embarrassing name calling at parties, “Man, she doesn’t know anything about politics! That was a stupid thing to say.” We’ve all done or seen the contemptuous sneer. It’s prevalent on reality shows and on the news today. But when you are contemptuous of your partner all the time, it’s probably a reflection on how you really feel about yourself: not good enough, underneath that bluster. Iks-nay on the elf-hatred-say.

Defensiveness. This is the knee jerk reaction of defending yourself whenever you’re asked about something. “I don’t do that! And what about you? You never take out the garbage! You leave coffee grounds on the kitchen counter!!” This reaction may have its roots in an unwillingness to accept responsibility. Iks-nay on the ot-me-nay.

Stonewalling. This looks like the stone face, the non–answer the withdrawal behind the walls. “Sigh. Ugh. Here we go again. Talk to the hand, man.” Avoidance and retreat-ville behind the walls happen. Iks-nay on the quiet ear -fay.

If you’re often taking a ride with one or more of those four horsemen, probably  many of your relationships are in trouble, not just your primary one. You probably don’t realize your poor social skills and fear of others causes you distress.

You probably don’t feel like you have much personal power. The swag that comes with the four horsemen styles diminishes your inner power. You become a magnet for negativity and reduce your chances of being heard.

So what can be done to help you change the way you communicate? Doing some inner self-reflection and deep inner change would be part of the therapy. You need to be willing to do this. Many are not willing to look at themselves.

Take a look at how the four horsemen can be re-worked. As Dr. Gottman says, work on building a culture of appreciation in your relationships, and reduce the anger, criticism and distancing behaviors.

Replace criticism with complaint without blame: Instead of criticizing others, you can begin to voice a complaint without attaching blame to anyone. “Oh, I notice the garbage hasn’t been taken out. I really like when the garbage is taken out, as it is cleaner in the house.”

Replace defensiveness with accepting responsibility: Accept responsibility for things that you do. Instead of deflecting a request for you to change the way you do things, try considering the suggestion, and accept partial responsibility.

Replace stonewalling with self-soothing techniques: Instead of shutting down when having a discussion, practice self-soothing as a tactic. Breathe. Learn self-soothing techniques. Allow yourself to calm down, sort out how you feel, regroup and then come back to discuss the subject adding your opinions.

These techniques are not simple. There are no easy “Five Steps to a Better Relationship.”  Not.

It can be scary to stand in your power and make clear requests as an equal partner. Your real power lies in being able to influence your partner by stating your true needs and wants, with clear communication. This is an internal change and an external change.


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