We have all heard the devastating divorce rates statistics and the statements about how difficult relationships are and while some of these statements and statistics are accurate it serves to deter us from relationships and erode away at our basic confidence in having a holistic healthy relationship. When couple’s come in to see me for couple’s therapy there a few techniques and skills that are necessary to teach. Most couple’s come in with a lot of passion and desire to work on the relationship but over years of having cycles of being critical, defensive, contemptuous and hostile the positive nurturing feeling that keeps us emotionally bonded in our relationships have faded away. My role is to begin to teach couple’s how to have better fights, identify the emotions under the content of the fight and learn solid repair techniques to bring back a sense of emotional security in the relationship. The goal of couple’s therapy is not to stop fighting or to change the other partner. The truth is fighting is not a negative phenomenon in and of itself; fighting can clarify the other person’s boundaries, beliefs, values and needs. If a couple learns how to listen in the midst of an argument to the underlying needs of the partner then the couple is on the right track in fighting effectively. Most couple want to change the other person but the point of working through couple’s therapy is to understand the other person’s emotional blueprint, communication style and temperament in order to mirror back and validate to eventually get both partner’s needs met. Couple’s who fail to listen to understand the other often report high levels of contempt and defensiveness in their relationship.
Dr. John Gottman has spent years studying marriages – both marriages that have endured, and marriages that have eventually ended in divorce. He studied marriages with the intent of uncovering the reasons why some marriages work and why other marriages fail.
After studying marriages for 16 years, he has learned to predict which couples will eventually divorce and which will remain married. He can make this prediction based on the ways couples argue, after listening to the couple for just five minutes, with 91% accuracy. He can make these predictions with such a high degree of accuracy because he has discovered which behaviors will lead to a breakup of the marriage. Dr. Gottman has pin-pointed what he terms as the four horsemen of apocalypse in a relationship that usually predicts the likelihood of a relationship failing if left unchecked. These four horsemen of apocalypse in a relationship are:
Criticism: Example: “Why are you so selfish? You never listen to me I told you I wanted to go to the movies on Friday but instead you went off with your no good friends!”
Contempt: Example: Some examples of contempt are when a person uses “sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eyerolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor” (Gottman et al 29) Gottman reports that Criticism is the worst of the four horsemen of apocalypse because it communicates disgust for the other partner, so the likelihood of resolution and problem solving is at an all time low.
Defensiveness: When couple’s become defensive they are in effect communicating that the problem is not “me” it is “you” Defensiveness can eventually give way to stonewalling.
Stonewalling: Stonewalling occurs when the tension and conflict arises then one person usually shuts down, stop talking or stop engaging all together. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable out” (Gottman et al 34).
The good news is that when couple’s begin to catch their particular brand of effective communication then they can begin to fall out of the negative cycle by acknowledging they are in a pattern and stepping back from continuing the cycle. One Technique that couple can begin to employ is:
When you realize you have practiced a negative communication pattern or one of the four horsemen of apocalypse begin by repairing with your partner. Examples of repair attempts are:
I did not mean to snap at you I think I had a bad day and I’m taking it out on you. Please forgive me.
Can we talk about something else for a while I need to calm down.
Give me a moment, I need to calm down I will be back.
I think we got off track let’s start over again.
Hang in there with me please, I feel you withdrawing.
That’s a good point…
I think we both are saying…
I see what you are talking about
This topic seems to be really painful for you
This is not your problem, it really is our problem.
Repair attempts can begin to neutralize hostile energy in a relationship and begin to restore emotional trust. I recommend for people with years of built up frustration, hostility, broken trust, that they may seek the help of a Licensed Therapist with couple’s experience.
Check out Gottman’s Institute for More Information: Couples