When it comes to romantic love and lasting relationships, John Gottman, Ph.D., is a true pioneer. Not only is Gottman a professor at the University of Washington and a best-selling author, but also a true scientist of relationships. Since 1994 he has studied couples, specifically tracking behaviors, communication, patterns, and the ‘whats’ and the ‘hows’ that go into fighting. From the couples he studies in his ‘love lab,’ Gottman is able to predict (with 90% accuracy) which couples will remain together and which couples will break up. Interestingly, the determining factors of breaking up have less to do with how often couples fight or the issues they fight about and more to do with how they go about the fighting process. Gottman identified 4 distinct behaviors that are relationship killers, regardless of the issue at hand. These four behaviors tend to demoralize and destroy partners over time, preventing couples from feeling safe or respected in order to address the issues before them. Consider these four behaviors, as well as the possible alternatives, and see if there are places your relationship might improve!
The Four Relationship Killers
1. Criticism- repetitive complaints, negative evaluations or judgments, blaming, nagging, using sarcasm in ways that demean, or speaking with emotional charge regarding a partner’s actions, character, or way of being. Criticism frequently begins with: “You always,” or “You never,” or “I am so darn tired of the way you…”
A possible alternative to criticism: “Softened Start-Up”
Softened Start Up is an incredible skill that goes a long way. It means to say what is needed, but with kindness, respect, calmness and with “I” statements. This usually helps one’s partner listen better and be more willing.
EXAMPLE: “Joe, do you have a quick minute? I wanted to share something that was hard for me. When you were late, I got really worried and scared. Did you know that? It would mean so much to me if we both could be more timely. Thanks for hearing me out.”
2. Contempt- criticism bolstered by hostility or disgust. It includes insults, jabs, attacks, mocking, talking down to, rolling one’s eyes, name-calling, or belligerence. Contempt usually feels humiliating, demoralizing, mean, devious, or obliterating.
A possible alternative to contempt: “Repairing The Conversation”
Repairing the Conversation is making an effort to de-escalate negative feelings DURING difficult encounters instead of amplifying them with contempt. A repair might be a deep breath and slowing down. It might also include an apology, a smile, a request, setting a boundary, or even a bit of humor. It can also help to remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and that they are trying too. Contempt usually covers over deeper hurts or needs, making it more unlikely they will be addressed.
EXAMPLE: During a fight, one might say, “I am really angry right now that you are confronting me for being late. I need to take 20-30 minutes to breathe and calm down, so I can be constructive and helpful in this conversation. I can see you are really trying too. Can we give this a break for now and circle back later tonight?”
3. Defensiveness- counterattacks to maintain one’s innocence, level the playing field or avoid taking responsibility when one feels blamed, made wrong, or attacked themselves. Defensiveness may take the form of pointing out what another did wrong, justifications, making cross-complaints, or rationalizing why one’s actions were okay.
A possible alternative to defensiveness: “Accepting Influence”
Accepting Influence is when partners practice being open to persuasion from each other and include their partner’s perspective along with their own. This is the opposite of being rigid, domineering, ‘right,’ or stubborn. It is about accepting the other’s perceptions and blending them with one’s own, so there is give and take, instead of right and wrong.
EXAMPLE: “I can see that being on time is really important to you and that my support would help. I will make an effort for timeliness to be more of a priority.”
4. Stonewalling- rigidly withdrawing or shutting others out, offering no verbal or physical cues, often for lengthy periods of time. Stonewalling is often used to avoid conflict, convey disapproval, or create distance and separation.
A possible alternative to stonewalling: Turning Toward Your Partner
close relationships consist of a series of ‘emotional bids’ – essentially reaching for emotional connection through comments, questions, touch or facial gestures. When this occurs, we have 3 choices: we can turn away (withdraw/get silent), turn toward (lean in/listen) or fight against (argue/blame). Research shows that consistently being able to turn toward your partner strengthens relationships.
EXAMPLE: “Being late is really difficult for me to talk about but I can see that it is important. Would it work if we talk about it for 10-15 minutes, and then return to it over the weekend if needed? I don’t want to discard it but I also want to remain centered and not overwhelmed.”
Romantic love is among the hardest things we will ever do, being both the source of our greatest joy and also our greatest distress. Equipping ourselves with tools to navigate romantic love can greatly ease that distress. To learn more, please visit www.gottman.com.