Dr. John Gottman is one of the most thorough researchers on romantic relationships, and the factors that lead to their success or failure. After watching thousands of couples in his lab, he was able to identify specific negative communication patterns that predict divorce. He actually claims to be able to predict divorce with a 90% success rate. He identified four particular negative communication patterns that he called “The four horsemen of the apocalypse”. They are; criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt.
All of these can be present within a healthy relationship of course, without necessarily damaging the relationship. However, when these become very prevalent communication patterns, the relationship is at risk.
Let me explain more about what these four factors mean:
We often use the words “you always”, or “you never” when we are criticising, which is more likely to lead to a defensive reaction. Even more damaging, than criticising behaviour, is criticising a person’s character, which leaves them feeling unworthy and hopeless.
Defensiveness can be a reaction to criticism, or perceived criticism. Instead of acknowledging the complaint, we either make a counter criticism, or react in a way that makes the other person not feel heard, and leads to a spiralling of further criticism and defence.
This is where one of the partner withdraws from the discussion, either physically leaving, or becoming silent and shutting out the other person. This is often very frustrating for the other partner, who will either increase the intensity of the interaction in order to recovery some level of communication, or else they will also withdraw.
Treating others with disrespect and mocking them with sarcasm are forms of contempt. So are hostile humour, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling and sneering. Contempt erodes the bond that holds a couple securely together. It’s impossible to build connection when your relationship is deprived of respect.
It is important to recognise if any of these elements are becoming pervasive in your relationship. One of the problems is that when a relationship has been eroded by these negative patterns, each of the partners begins to feel insecure, which ironically leads to more of these negative dynamics. Our bond with our partner is very important, and therefore once it begins to feel shaky, we are very easily “triggered”. Therefore couples will find that arguments become more frequent, and small things, very suddenly turn into big battles.
In couples counselling we help couples identify these patterns, and begin to reverse them by teaching couples new ways to avoid these negative patterns. With some work, and commitment to change, we begin to strengthen the bond again, which helps the couple feel safer in their relationship. We can transform from what John Gottman called “disaster” relationships, into what he called “master” relationships.