Gottman’s 4 Horsemen–Signs of a Deteriorating Relationship

So this really wicked smart couple, the Gottmans, spent years researching relationships and trying to figure out what things nurtured or destroyed the health of a relationship.

They did this by observing and recording both physiological and behavioral mechanisms in couples in a “Couples Lab” that was staged to be similar to a house (just with lots of cameras and the bias of knowing a researcher was watching). Regardless, these couples didn’t act “perfect” and Gottman was able to collect tons of data that in effect could predict relationship outcomes so well that he makes the claim that he can “eavesdrop on a couple at a restaurant and predict whether they will be successful or not…” (Pretty big claims Mr. Gottman–but likely very accurate!) He’s done the nitty-gritty work of making this area his life’s work and coming up with research-based truths about what factors correlate to successful or not-so successful relationships.

Okay– let’s delve into the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or signs of relationship deterioration.

1. Criticism

Criticism is distinctly different than making known a complaint or offering constructive feedback. It’s the difference between “You ran late for our appointment, I thought we agreed to be on time” and “You’re always late! You’re so selfish…”

Criticism can be toxic if it becomes the default way of communicating your needs and wants to your partner. Try to identify the specific behavior that bothers you and refrain from calling your significant other names or using “always, never, should” etc.

2. Contempt

This one can be tricky. Contempt is often fueled by long-stemming negative thought patterns. Contempt is using sarcasm, ridicule, demeaning language, or even non-verbal behaviors such as “eye rolling” to communicate with your partner. Couples who frequently engage in contempt also have lower functioning immune systems. This is also (according to Gottman) the single greatest predictor for divorce.

3. Defensiveness

Defensiveness is making excuses when a partner is trying to communicate a want/need or asking why we didn’t do some thing or if we would. For instance, a partner may ask “Why didn’t you call me after your interview today like you said you would?” a defensive response would be, “I’m just too busy. I don’t know why you always need for me to call you when you know how busy I am.” A better response would be, “Oh goodness! I totally forgot bc I was so busy today. Next time I will make sure to put it in my calendar and let you know if I’m too busy to make the call right away..” We all have our reasons for making mistakes or not meeting our significant others wants and desires, but instead of coming up with excuses–it’s best to acknowledge their concern and try to compromise to prevent future recurrence.

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling is when we zone out or withdraw from an interaction with our partner. This can look like a partner playing a video game while you are trying to discuss something important, or always being “too busy” to talk through relationship concerns. It can be easy for this pattern to become a habitual “easy out” to confronting or dealing with relationship issues. However, if continued, stonewalling can poison a once healthy relationship.

As I briefly scratch the surface of certain behaviors to avoid, I want to reassure you that even healthy relationships dabble in these behaviors from time-to-time. Making sure to consciously be aware and make these behaviors the exception and not the rule is key to cultivating a healthy, long-lasting relationship.

So next time your feeling flooded with emotions–try to catch yourself before you engage in any of these behaviors. If you do find yourself wanting/beginning to engage in a horsemen behavior call a timeout on yourself and take 20 minutes to get back into a place where you can communicate healthfully with your partner.

This is all MUCH easier said than done, but it’s important to be aware of what factors might be influencing relationship success or destruction. I’ve found that this is ESPECIALLY important as we enter into the holiday season which brings both tremendous joy and… stress, it’s important for us to communicate healthfully with our loved ones to promote connection and unity.

Until next time, J out.

For more information and my sources, check out:

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