Jennie Steinberg, LMFT, LPCC
Imagine if I told you that my chair was uncomfortable without providing any additional information. If you wanted to fix the problem, you might make it higher or lower, firmer or softer, you might adjust the back, the head rest, the arm rest. You might try to reupholster it in a different material. And at the end of all of this, I may still find the chair uncomfortable.
The problem is that I haven’t given you enough information to make a substantive and directed change.
Ask almost any struggling couple what their biggest challenge is, and they’re likely to tell you it’s poor communication. But this is just as vague as my concerns about the troublesome chair. With such a non-specific description, how can anyone be expected to address, let alone fix the issue?
Enter John and Julie Gottman
John and Julie Gottman are a husband-and-wife psychologist duo who decided to study the interactional patterns between couples and break down why they struggle. Together they observe couples in their Seattle-based “love lab,” and have determined a number of criteria that can make or break a couple.
In a 1992 study, John Gottman was able to predict with 94% accuracy whether a couple would stay together or divorce. Wow.
The great news if you find that you’re exhibiting any of the patterns correlated with high divorce rates, you can bring your relationship back from the brink by adjusting the way you interact with your partner.
I use a lot of the Gottman research findings with my own clients, and I want to share with you some of the major tenets of their work:
Positive Interactions Ratio
In this article about the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic, I described Gottman’s findings about emotional bids. To recap, we all make bids for connection every day. We might say “hey look at this cute cat picture,” or we might say, “huh, interesting” while reading a news article. Each time we make a bid, the other person can respond in one of three ways:
- Turning towards – Acknowledging you in a positive way, like “what’s interesting?” or “yes, that’s a really cute cat!”
- Turning against – Acknowledging what you said, but in a very negative way, like “shut up, I’m trying to read!” or “why do you waste my time with stupid animal pictures?”
- Turning away – Ignoring you completely, either by not responding or by changing the subject.
When someone turns towards us, it’s a positive interaction. When someone turns against or away from us – especially away – it’s a negative interaction.
If you had to guess, how many positive interactions do you think satisfied couples have for every negative interaction? Is it an even 1:1? 3 positive for every negative?
Actually, the research shows that couples who stay together have a positive interaction to negative interaction ratio of 5:1. Couples who describe their relationship as “good” or “happy” have a 10:1 ratio!
And couples who have a “bad relationship”? Well, here’s what that looks like:
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
In the “love lab,” the Gottmans identified four interactional patterns that were likely to end a relationship. These communication traits, called The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, are the information from which Gottman was able to predict the fate of a relationship with such high accuracy. Let’s take a look at those patterns, and what you can do instead if you recognize them as something you do:
Definition: Criticism is verbally attacking someone’s personality or character. This isn’t just a complaint; it’s a personal attack that speaks more globally to your perception of the other person. A complaint is, “I don’t like that you knocked over that glass of water.” A criticism is, “look how clumsy you are, knocking over that glass of water!”
The Fix: Can you word your concern in a situation-specific way? Before you express your discontentedness, think about whether your intention is to insult the other person or just to get your own needs met. When initiating such a conversation, use what Gottman calls a “gentle start-up” and ease into your concern. I’m a fan of sandwich feedback, where you sandwich your concern between two positive, kind, or empathic observations. For example, “I really love the joy you were expressing when you gestured grandly and accidentally knocked over that glass, but would you mind being a little bit more careful next time? And after we clean this up, I’d love to hear the end of that story you were telling.”
Definition: Contempt is when you express disdain with the “intention to insult or psychologically abuse” them. Whatever you’re saying is so steeped in your lack of respect for the other person that it cuts to the very core of their being. Of the “four horsemen,” contempt is the most damaging.
The Fix: Describe yourself instead of your partner. Say, “my needs are ___” or “I feel ___” or “when you ___, it makes me feel ___.” Own your perspective, and acknowledge that the things you’re asking for are about you, not about them. If you’re aware that this is a trap you fall into frequently, walk away, take a few deep breaths, check in with yourself, ask yourself what you need, and when you are calmer, come back and tell your partner about how you feel and what you need.
Definition: Defensiveness is when you deflect something said by your partner by making yourself the victim. This is frequently wielded when you feel attacked – it’s much safer than leaning into the vulnerability of squishy emotions like sadness, hurt, and fear. It’s saying, “So what if I didn’t wash my dishes? You always leave your socks on the floor!” or coming up with excuses for why what you did was justified.
The Fix: Take responsibility for your part. If you feel defensive, it’s probably because your partner is expressing dissatisfaction with something that you did that is making them feel hurt, sad, afraid, unloved, or disregarded. Even if the situation is 95% not your fault, acknowledge the part that is your fault, and apologize for hurting your partner. If you have no intention or ability to make a change, say, “I acknowledge that ___ hurts you but it’s hard for me not to do that. Still, I don’t want you to hurt, and I wonder if we can work together to find something that will work for both of us.”
Definition: This is the “turning away” from the bids explanation above. It’s the silent treatment, ignoring your partner’s need, or physically leaving the room.
The Fix: Communicate with your partner that you feel overwhelmed and need a time-out. Say something like, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed by this conversation right now, and I need some space to process this. I will come back, but I need to step out of the room to process this.” If this is something you feel a lot, you may even work with your partner to develop an emotional “safe word” that you can use to quickly communicate that sentiment. Then, take a break and ground yourself in the here and now by practicing mindfulness and focusing on your breathing. When you’re ready to calmly continue the conversation, go back to your partner and do so.
Important Note: In order for this to work, you can’t use a time out as avoidance. You have to be the one to re-initiate the conversation. This builds a foundation of trust that allows your partner to believe you are genuinely taking a time out rather than just running away from a difficult conversation.