Four Signs Your Relationship Could Be In Trouble
This week I wanted to focus on relationships and ways that couples can stay happy and connected to each other. Sometimes couples can enter into destructive patterns of behavior with each other and recognizing those patterns is the first step to solving the problem. John Gottman, PhD, is a researcher specializing in the science of successful couple relationships, and he has identified four destructive behaviors that can be predictors of divorce; he has labelled these The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Often when we engage in these behaviors it can seem as if we are constantly fighting about nothing, and it can leave us feeling exhausted and less invested in our relationship. The Four Horsemen are:
This is when you phrase your concerns about the relationship as problems or faults in your partner, so you seem to be attacking their character rather than their behavior. Examples of this include saying things like “You really annoy me when you do that” or “Why didn’t you take out the trash last night, you can be so lazy?”
Why is criticism a concern? It makes the other person feel they are the problem, and inevitably it will lead to our next Horseman, which is:
When you feel attacked, sometimes you attack back, or you get whiney. You want to make out you are innocent and you need to find some way to deflect, so you turn the tables, make excuses and match the other person’s complaint with one of your own. “Oh yeah, well maybe I would take the trash out if you would bother to empty the dishwasher once in a while!” You can see how this quickly escalates in to a fight and bad feeling on both sides.
Our third Horseman is the one who stops responding and turns away. They cut off communication and stop speaking for a while, sometimes for days. This leaves the other partner feeling ignored and deeply frustrated, and can lead to repeated attempts to re-engage, sometimes by escalating things until there is no choice but to respond. Interestingly this is a gendered response, as it is more often men who stonewall. Research suggests men do this because they feel overwhelmed or ‘flooded’ by emotions and are unable to think clearly. They may also be using this time to dwell on negative thoughts about their partner and the relationship, which makes it harder to move on.
This is the particularly concerning Horseman as it shows one person is taking a position of superiority over the other. Examples of contempt include mocking the other person, eye rolling, sneering, sarcasm, name calling and insults, and often correcting the other person to make it seem as though they are incapable or less intelligent. If you find yourself doing this on a regular basis, it is time to make some changes.
So what can we do to improve our relationship if we find The Four Horsemen are present in our lives? Here are some tried and tested tips straight from couple’s therapy:
- Use a gentle approach when you want to complain about something your partner is doing. Don’t steam in there, come at it slowly and pick your moment.
- Use ‘I’ language, which means instead of saying “you, you, you” all the time, phrase a positive request about a specific behavior that your partner can easily change, for example: “I really prefer when the toilet seat is left down, so if that is possible it would be great”
- Take responsibility for things you are doing that your partner doesn't like, and think about what you can change to help the relationship. When we care for the other person’s needs we are ultimately contributing to our own happiness too.
- Talk about your feelings and your needs so the other person knows where you are and doesn't have to guess
- Take time to focus on the other person’s positive qualities and what you appreciate about them, and tell them! We all have faults, but dwelling on them doesn't lead to happiness
- If you are finding your feelings overwhelming when you are in a conflict with each other, then take a time out. Leave the room and calm yourself down, reflect on what your emotions and thoughts are right now, and what led to the escalation. When you are calm and have it figured out, you can go back and re-engage your partner again.
Happy relationships can stand a little Criticism, Defensiveness and Stonewalling, but when they are ongoing and joined by their friend Contempt, this is a high predictor that your relationship is in trouble and may end. Constant investment in your relationship is crucial, so don’t leave the decision to enter into therapy until The Four Horsemen are galloping through your relationship and trampling it into oblivion!
If you are feeling concerned about your relationship, then counselling can be helpful in providing support and a non-judgmental space to begin to repair and move forward.
For more in-depth help and counselling, consider contacting Dr Jules in person