If you've ever been married or in a committed relationship, you likely know that marriage is not always bliss. Unfortunately, many of us have grown up thinking that, someday, we'll marry our "Prince Charming" or "Cinderella" and live happily ever after. That's the way it's supposed to be, isn't it? As a Family Psychologist and Director of Research and Programming at the Relationship Research Institute (a non-profit founded by Dr. John Gottman, dedicated to strengthening relationships through research)--also known as the "Love Lab"--I've seen my fair share of people who share this fantasy. Unfortunately, this fairytale ideal may have sadly given many of us somewhat unrealistic expectations when it comes to relationships. Luckily, Dr. John Gottman and his team at the Love Lab have spent the last 35+ years studying couples; this work has given us a more realistic understanding of what happy versus dysfunctional relationships look like.
By observing couples do the things that they normally do together, like try to resolve an issue or problem, Dr. Gottman and the Love Lab have helped us learn about the "Masters" and "Disasters" of relationships. Relationship Masters know how to handle arguments with their partners. These are the couples who have happy, healthy, satisfying relationships that last a lifetime. The Masters have taught us about what couples should do if they want to stay together and have healthy relationships. In contrast, the Disasters are not happy and experience high levels of conflict that they find hard to overcome. When Disasters interact, they are more likely to exhibit what we refer to as "the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse": criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
When couples engage in these behaviors frequently, there is a high likelihood that they will end up breaking up. If you are starting to wonder if you may be one of the Disasters potentially headed for divorce, if you are open to working on your relationship, there is still hope! By trying to act like the Masters, you can pave the way for healthier, longer, more satisfying relationships in your life. Below is a description of some common behaviors seen in the Disasters (e.g., the Four Horseman), as well as some remedies for these behaviors that we've learned from the relationship Masters.
1) Criticism. Criticism occurs when you complain about something and suggest that the problem is a character defect in your partner.
"The dishes are never done when I get home, and you are always just sitting there on the couch. You are so lazy! Why can't you just do the dishes when they need to be done?!"
Remedy for Criticism: Rather than criticize, use a gentle startup. State the problem in a neutral way and let your partner know how it makes you feel, and then state a positive need (what you do want).
"I see that the dishes are not done yet. It really makes me upset when I come home and find that they are not done, which means that I can't make dinner. What can we do to get them done on time so that I can make dinner when I get home?"
2) Defensiveness. Defensiveness is a common response to criticism. It occurs when one person tries to defend their actions and denies responsibility for the problem.
"I didn't do the dishes because you didn't ask me to. You never talk to me. I can't read your mind!"
Remedy for Defensiveness: Rather than defend yourself, accept some personal responsibility. Let your partner know how you have contributed to the problem.
"I guess I forgot to do the dishes when I got home and then got caught up with reading this article. I'm sorry."
3) Contempt. Contempt occurs when you try to hurt your partner's feelings or insult them. It can take the form of name-calling and sarcasm.
"Maybe I should ask the magic dishwashing fairy to do your chores for you; then maybe I can actually count on them to be done!"
Remedy for Contempt: Rather than respond contemptuously, create a culture of appreciation. Express genuine fondness and admiration for your partner and let them know that you are thankful for them. Then, when conflict does arise, it will be less harmful.
"I really appreciate your willingness to talk with me about this and create a plan that will help us get the chores done. I love you."
4) Stonewalling. Stonewalling usually occurs when someone gets really upset and doesn't want to interact any more, so they just sit there like a stone wall and ignore their partner. They just withdraw from the interaction and don't respond to anyone.
Remedy for Stonewalling: Rather than stonewalling your partner, take a short 20-minute break. If you are feeling overwhelmed and like you might say something hurtful or just can't take it anymore, then take some time to calm down and self-soothe.
"I really need to take a moment before we talk about how to address this issue. I'm feeling really overwhelmed, so I'm going to go out for a quick walk. We can talk when I get back."
5) Belligerence. Although belligerence is not one of the original "Four Horsemen", Dr. Gottman deemed it an honorary horseman due to its harmful nature in relationships. Belligerence occurs when someone expresses their anger in an aggressive, threatening way.
"Well then maybe I should just leave you so you won't have any more dirty dishes to come home to."
Remedy for Belligerence: Rather than provoking your partner, try to make a repair attempt. There are many ways to try to repair the relationship after a fight. For example, you can share your honest feelings with your partner and remind them that the discussion has gotten off track.
"You hurt my feelings when you said that. We are getting off track. Can we start this conversation over again?"
To make your relationship feel more like "happily ever after", take time to act like one of the relationship Masters by sharing love and appreciation for your partner today!
Renay P. Cleary Bradley, Ph.D., is a Family Psychologist and the Director of Research and Programming at the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle, Washington, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, founded by Dr. John Gottman, dedicated to strengthening relationships through research (www.rrinstitute.org).
Renay P. Cleary Bradley, Ph.D.
Director of Research and Programming
Relationship Research Institute
2030 First Ave., Suite 205
Seattle, WA 98121