Four Horsemen of the (relationship) Apocalypse

Some time ago I ran across a thing about Gottman’s ( predictors of divorce. It was very interesting to me because Dr. Gottman has been doing what he’s doing for a very long time.

When I was in school many years ago, the first big divorce predictor had already been identified: contempt. This is an obvious sign of disaster already in progress. Everyone has failings– you, me, everyone. Not only that, whenever we get into relationships, each person has strengths, and each person has weaknesses; that is what makes good relationships good for both people. Hey– I’m a better cook, you’re a better decorator, so we have a nice home. But the flip side is when one loses (or never had) tolerance for the other’s weakness– I’m a thrifty shopper, you can’t hang on to money .  When one starts to have contempt for a partner’s failings, things are going bad. But what can we do? In a word, compassion– recognize that  your partner is a good person, trying to do his/her best, but not everyone has equal talents in all areas. Step up your own game, if you’re better. But recognize that your partner being less able doesn’t make them a bad person.

Defensiveness rides in the same posse; possibly not as brutal a relationship killer as contempt, but still a sign that things are going sideways. One thing about this is that many of us grew up in  homes where it was considered a duty to point out other family members’ mistakes and failings in order to help them be better (read: perfect in some homes). We leave home and do our best to get away from our families of origin, but we bring them with us wherever we go. So when a partner mentions that I may have fallen short in something, I’m ready to go on the defensive. And when the conversation is attack/defend, it ain’t gonna be pretty.  Our relationship gets bogged down in being on the lookout, both to avoid the things my partner will nag me about, and being on the lookout for things to zing my partner with. As in avoiding contempt, a first response of compassion can go a long way, but there’s another, perhaps more difficult response: maybe I’m wrong! Twelve-steppers will recognize the tenth step here: Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it. And with 200+ 12-step programs out there, people must find this stuff helpful.  I can strengthen my relationship by taking responsibility promptly where appropriate. When in doubt, ask  yourself this key question: Which would I rather be– right, or happy? Do you want to win the argument and lose your relationship, or concede a point and have a happy partner?

Criticism is the starting point that may or may not lead to defensiveness  or contempt. Everything that’s been said so far about how to stop things from going sideways applies here. In addition, There’s a fun t hing that Gottman discovered: in healthy relationships, the ratio of positive to negative stuff runs around 5:1. That’s five good things– honey, I love you. I appreciate your emptying the dishwasher. I think you’re sweet. A hug/kiss. Thanks for noticing that the car was low on gas & filling it up. To one bad thing: I wish  you would put the top back on the toothpaste. I’m deliberately picking a stupid criticism here, but another interesting thing Gottman’s research has discovered is that about 2/3 of all arguments are over things that aren’t going to change. You can suck it up and get used to the top being off the toothpaste, or you can enjoy always having the top on it when  you live alone.  Before you criticize, ask yourself: what’s my part in the action plan for change? If you’re pinning your happiness on plans for your partner to change, forget it. But where criticism may be necessary to your relationship, remember to keep it constructive and polite. And accept feedback, being ready at all times to come back to the basic admission– maybe I’m the one who’s wrong. Or more importantly much of the time– maybe there is not right/wrong issue here.

Stonewalling is the last problem we’ll think about here. People are in relationships to connect. When you disconnect, you’re starving your relationship. People think that “If you ignore it, it will go away,” and they’re right. they’re just not right about what’s going away. The problem doesn’t go away, the relationship does. This relates to the 5:1 ratio of positive to negative communications. when people are communicating, one part of the communication is that they’re putting in a bid for connection. If I tell my partner, “Honey, you smell good today,” and my honey ignores me, it damages the relationship. It may not be as bad as a negative response like “You only say stuff like that when you want to get laid,” but it starves the relationship. Too much and the relationship can wither, even without the more obvious stuff of contempt, defensiveness, and criticism. I would like to suggest two things to avoid this problem: 1) pay attention; 2) take time. These two go together. In a hectic world of a zillion distractions, we may be consulting our calendar, checking email, writing a shopping list, texting someone, or a hundred other things. Brain research has discovered this about multi-tasking: there is no such thing. You can quickly switch from one task to another and back again, but for each switch there’s a startup cost and a shutdown cost. It’s sort of like using a single cutting board for salad vegetables as well as raw chicken. You wouldn’t chop a couple of vegetables, clean the cutting board, chop a little chicken, clean the cutting board (and the knife) and back again. You do all of one task, then all of the other. This applies in more places than relationships, but we don’t have time for that digression.

Time is the beginning and end of taking care of a relationship. Many years ago now, a colleague loaned me a book of writings on relationships in which there was an chapter by Peggy Papp, another famous family therapist, titled something like “The Time Famine.” In all honesty, I didn’t read it. I just looked at it and recognized that I was living in the time famine. Reading the chapter would have been like reading Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year while the plague was still going on. You just have to get used to the idea: there are 24 hours in a day; how many of them will go to your relationship? What’s it worth to you?

Image: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Durer, ca. 1496-8

p.s. my partner of 20+ years previewed this post. Just in case you wanted to know…


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in belongingness, choices, Couple communication, Couples and relationships, Feelings, Frustration, reconciliation, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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