This week I am going to start talking about the factors that often erode a relationship and then how to counter them. I am going to begin by exploring an idea developed by John Gottman and next week I will talk about the ideas Joe and I have developed to counter these threats to happiness.
Gottman was studying how couples manage difference and how this is critical to the success of the marriage. There were a number of factors that he identified that could indicate the chances of a relationship failing.
He called these factors the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and he wrote a book called “Why marriages succeed or fail” based on his findings.
He noticed that in failing marriages there were certain patterns that appeared to be common indicators. He analysed these behaviours and grouped them into four categories; stonewalling, defensiveness, criticism and contempt.
Stonewalling is about avoidance; certain topics become off limits so we don’t talk about them. This can be a mutual decision or one partner overtly refusing to discuss a “hot” topic.
Defensiveness is linked to apprehension; not taking responsibility and by implication wanting to blame someone else. When we become overly defensive we may start seeing conflict where it doesn’t exist and give out hostile defensive vibes toward our partner.
Criticism is about antagonism; attacking the other party overtly. Critical behaviours can become habitual and reflexive. The trap of criticism explodes when we start to criticise even the smallest thing, for example how someone loads the dishwasher!
Defensiveness and criticism are usually two sides of the same coin, where one side wants to attack and the other side parries. This is a common pattern in relationships, often one partner adopts the critical role while the other is defensive. Sometimes there is a flip flop effect but more often roles are adopted.
Contempt is about aversion and is considered to be the worst and most poisonous horseman. At this point affection and love have been dissolved by the acidity of contempt. To begin with this feeling may be experienced only now and then but each time it appears it strengthens. Over time contempt destroys love.
The most obvious non verbal cue of contempt according to Gottman is eyeball rolling. In some couples this has become a regular signal. A more subtle signal can be seen when examining micro-expressions such as the asymmetrical lip curl to demonstrate contempt.
Micro-expression last typically less than a twenty fifth of a second. You can learn to recognise micro-expressions by improving your visual acuity through disciplines such as NLP or courses run by Paul Ekman‘s associates.
Unconsciously we already recognise micro-expressions and if our partner is regualarly flashing contempt at us we will get that at an unconscious emotional level.
Something I have observed in couples behaviour is how in some cultures, particularly the British, criticism and contempt in relationship are culturally supported. I notice this most often when in a female only group when women talk about their partners.
Women often spend time criticising and putting down their partner in discussions with other women and using generalisations about men. Women who don’t join in often get cold shouldered by the group or the criticism turned on them.
This even happens in situations where the women don’t know each other. Last week I was in a women’s clothes shop and Joe was patiently waiting while I tried things on. As I went into the changing room I said something to him which he acknowledged while busily writing in a notebook. I was okay with that and also knew he was writing something in his ideas book which I appreciate the importance of. The shop assistant rolled her eyes and said something about “typical men.”
I chose not to respond and just noticed the invitation to play the game of kick men. Why did she do it? My guess is that she was trying to establish rapport with me, so the intention behind the behaviour was positive. In most instances the shopper would have joined in with her out of cultural habit and rapport would have been established.
Next week I will talk more about how we can counter Gottman’s horsemen but for now notice your own behaviour and that of others. Where are the unhelpful habits? Keep track and start making some new decisions for yourself.
If you want to read more now check out the full article Joe and I wrote for Rapport magazine:
GWiz News update
As you probably know we ran a workshop last month called “Your Brilliant You!” as a fundraiser for Marie Curie Cancer Charity. We raised over £1000! This event was so successful that we have decided to run another one. The next event will be in the Milton Keynes area on 21st April 2012.
Please help us help people to improve their self esteem and raise money for charity. Do pass this information on to anyone you know who might be interested. Here is the link;
You will also find information about other workshops including NLP and coaching certified training courses.
Next week we will begin talking about how to counter the horsemen and how to keep your relationship where you want it to be.