Have you ever walked in on a couple having an argument? They’re going for it. The language gets more and more colourful. The volume gets louder and louder. People are ducking for cover and all you want to do is click your heels three times and say ‘take me home!’
How is it that some couples really struggle and others don’t? We’re all built to have relationships. It’s such a primal and basic need that you’d think it would be easy. Generally they’re not. Relationships need daily attention and diligence. Just like every day we need food, water and shelter, we need love and connection with others. However, it is how we love and connect that causes the issues that split relationships.
Love and connection
We love and connect by communicating, and that is sadly when things can go wrong. It might sound so very simple, yet the lack of this skill, more than any other, is going to either make or break your relationship.
Dr John Gottman, an expert in marriage and divorce, claims that he is able to predict which relationships would succeed and which would fail according to how couples communicate. For a relationship to fail, there’d be four factors present within how a couple would be communicate that would guarantee doom. Rather dramatically, he called these ways The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.
The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse
Gottman named these horsemen as Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Contempt. Accordingly, if these behaviours and ways of communicating are present within a relationship, it will ultimately fail.
1: Criticism: we all need to be critiqued right? That’s how we learn and grow. We go through performance reviews, at uni our work is marked and graded, even our driving is assessed. We’re surrounded by it.
However, criticism becomes destructive when it is your character that becomes the focus of a complaint rather than a particular behaviour or issue that is irritating. Instead of saying ‘Can we talk about me now’ it could be ‘you always talk about yourself’ or ‘you’re so selfish’.
2: Defensiveness: When we are fearful we become defensive. Fear is a survival mechanism that keeps us safe. When that kicks in though, we can’t think rationally, we’re emotionally driven and we can say things we wish we hadn’t.
Defensiveness can be a sign that there’s unfinished emotional business that needs to be resolved. It may have nothing to do with your partner at all. However, if defensiveness is a means of how you or your partner communicates, it will build resentment and disharmony within the relationship.
It may feel as if personal attacks are ever present. It could be that what is said feels like a personal slight but is not was is intended. Things like ‘It’s your fault we’re always late, not mine’, ‘don’t blame me’ or ‘it’s always me, I’m the problem.’
3: Stonewalling: This isn’t taking time to cool off. This is a deliberate way of shutting down conversation all together. There is no response to what’s said, no cues, nothing. It’s as if the lights are on but no one’s home.
This can be extremely hurtful for the partner trying to talk to the other, leaving them feeling as if they’re not important enough to be listened to. It can happen if there are secrets within the relationship or, the partner is completely overwhelmed, or simply doesn’t want to discuss a subject that seems to come up often.
4: Contempt: Is a power play saying ‘I’m more important than you’ or ‘I know better than you’. It leaves feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, disregard and dismissiveness. It is highly destructive within a relationship. It comes from a place of arrogance and is completely opposite to what’s required within a healthy relationship.
Is this the end?
Continue on path that the horsemen have blazed, according to Gottman, it is. But it doesn’t have to be. If couples are willing to work recognise their behaviour and work at it, there can be successful outcomes.
Listen out for the heart cry
Often when I work with clients, I look for what I like to call ‘the heart cry’. That is, underneath everything that’s being said, what’s needed here? Where does it hurt? This approach is necessary within our relationships. According to Athena Staik, when couples communicate, primarily they’re asking:
- Are you there for me if I call out to you?
- Can you respond to my needs?
- How invested are you in this relationship?
These are the tiny heart cries that come out of our mouths daily. However, this type of love and connection may never have been experienced before in their lives. They may not even know how to express what they need to. If so, help is there to discover how to reach out to each other in this way.
The intervention of a couples counsellor can help navigate the way out of the destructive patterns within a relationship. As an objective party, a counsellor can help identify what’s going on and find ways to avoid the well-worn path of the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse. Rather than doom and gloom, unhappiness and disharmony, there can be love, connection, happiness and joy. Doesn’t everyone want and deserve that?