“Why do you always get so drunk at parties? You embarrass yourself and sound dumb.”
“What do you mean you forgot to pick up the wine? You had one job to do for this dinner party. Now we’re going to be late because you never remember anything!”
“I didn’t say it with that tone; you’re just overreacting. I’m trying to be reasonable here.”
“I don’t have the energy for this conversation right now. I worked all day and the game is about to start. Let’s talk about it later.”
These are examples of “The Four Horsemen”: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling
Dr. John Gottman of The Gottman Institute coined the term “The Form Horsemen” and used studies to determine these four main features of an unhealthy relationship.
A relationship may have one or all of them, and may shift over time, but they are present to some degree in almost any partnership. They may develop as coping mechanisms depending on your partner’s and your own upbringing.
Unsurprisingly, the health of our romantic relationship influences not only the quality of our own life, but also the quality of life for our kids, family members, friends and anyone else we might interact with.
Given this, it seems like our romantic relationship is a prime place to give our attention and these patterns are a good place to start.
Just because you don’t experience these (or don’t think you do) doesn’t mean you should skip this introspection. Even professionals still practice their crafts everyday. And I doubt anyone can say they are a professional at relationships. I sure as hell can’t.
Don’t wait until you need to improve your communication with your partner. Practice it everyday and reap the rewards.
An inability or unwillingness to address these topics with your partner may signal a deeper issue that requires a trained therapist. If left unchecked, this mentality can rear its ugly head through a lack of fulfillment, feelings of inferiority, and even divorce or a break up.
If proactive growth doesn’t persuade you, a healthy and committed relationship, especially one tracking towards marriage, has tons of tangible benefits, including the fact that “married men earn between 10%-40% more than single men. They also receive promotions more frequently and earn more glowing performance reviews than their single co-workers.”
Analyzing money and marriage side by side is a perfect example of how a holistic approach to improving the various pillars of your life compounds the returns both for your net worth and overall happiness.
Try to avoid (or at least begin to recognize) The Four Horsemen
The Four Horsemen are reliable predictors of the end of a relationship. That makes them the perfect place to begin your assessment of where your relationship and communication with your partner currently stands and where it may need improvement.
We all have sticking points in our relationships. Issues that come up over and over again or new challenges. We’ve likely unknowingly developed a strategy for dealing with these issues both in our own minds, and as a couple.
The strategies may involve arguing, giving the “silent treatment”, or even de-compartmentalizing from the relationship and seeking another outlet to channel frustrations, such as cheating, drinking or porn.
What if there were a way to revise our strategies for these problems towards a more productive path? Thankfully, through their research, the team over at The Gottman Institute has found ways to improve communication by re-framing how we say something and approaching the same problem from a different, more collaborative angle. They call them the “Antidotes” to the Four Horsemen:
By resolving conflict with your partner in these healthier ways, you simultaneously solve the issue, and make a bid towards intimacy, growth, and commitment.
For me personally, the hardest part about using these Antidotes is 1) remembering the Antidote in the heat of an moment and 2) letting go of my own ego enough to admit my responsibility during the argument.
This doesn’t mean not sticking up for yourself, manipulating your partner, or sweeping it under the rug. But when you realize when you are in the midst of acting out one of these examples during a conflict, you can always look within and begin again instantly.
To do this:
- Try to notice the volume and tone of your voice, as well as your body positioning (arms crossed, feet pointed towards the door, condescending facial expressions, etc.).
- Quickly scan your body for where you are feeling the emotion, whether it be anger, jealousy, or shame and bore into it. I didn’t understand this until I tried doing it and was amazed at how I could literally watch the emotion dissipate.
- Forget about being “right” for just a moment and seek common ground.
- Take 20 minutes, self-soothe separately, and come back to your partner. This is the average amount of time needed to physiologically calm down in order to be more a more receptive, empathetic, and creative problem solver.
These are some of the least natural things we are conditioned to do as humans. But they are also one of the most important things to do as members on the same team.
I have found the teachings of The Gottman Institute to be highly actionable and insightful. For my partner’s and mine anniversary, I purchased their toolkit, “The Art and Science of Love” and we spend time each Sunday evening working through the pages and cards. There’s no hidden motive here, I simply have found it to be worth every penny. (My partner loves it when I measure the satisfaction of our relationship in pennies.)
One of the hardest things I’ve had to do is take responsibility for not noticing these communication habits earlier and other ways that I was staying disconnected from my partners. I definitely have more than my fair share of failed relationships but I’ve also had to forgive myself for not knowing how to correct them at the time, and realize that I had no choice in what relationships (and versions of The Four Horsemen) were modeled to me growing up.
We inherit so much of our speech and action patterns in a relationship from our parents, parents of our closest friends, and even media before we can even tie our own shoes. There’s also no magical guarantee that anyone had it any better than us when they were being raised. However, once we realize there’s a better way, it’s absolutely incumbent upon us to work towards it or risk the consequences.
Therefore, it’s up to us to spend the time doing the work, acknowledging faults, taking action, and inching closer to a better version of our future selves. Not just for ourselves or our partner, but for our kids and their kids too.
Family and long-term friends might even notice the health of your communication, especially if it starts trending in a more positive direction from a deficit. All of humanity may then be improved by the simple awareness of two individuals.
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Way to put this in terms my single-track mind can understand: married men earn between 10%-40% more than single men. If it’s going to impact my finances, sounds like time for me to start opening my eyes to relationship possibilities again!
Haha you and me both my friend!