“Why do you ALWAYS leave the cabinets open? I walk into the kitchen and feel like I’m Vanna freakin’ White, helping a contestant solve a puzzle in here!” I say to my husband, Mark. I say it with a little bit of a laugh, but he knows and I know that I’m giving him shit.
“You could just ask me to be better about closing the cabinets, you know,” he calmly retorts.
He’s right. I could. But my go-to crap-tastic relationship behavior is Criticism, one of Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen. That’s my family’s native tongue, and I’ve learned to speak it at a very young age.
But, instead of saying, “You ALWAYS leave the cabinets open,” which is a criticism of Mark as a PERSON, I could have said, “I get frustrated when I walk into the kitchen and all of the cabinets are open. It would make me feel like our home is in order if the cabinets were closed,” which would be a complaint about an ACTION Mark takes sometimes.
Mark could have jumped to Defensiveness here, one of the other Four Horseman that Gottman discovered are the root of most unhealthy relationship patterns (and sometimes he does). “I’m still cooking, so I haven’t closed the cabinets yet. Why don’t you just close them if it bothers you so much? Gees.”
I wouldn’t have blamed him if he reacted that way. Defensiveness is a pretty natural response to criticism. Who doesn’t feel a twinge of defensiveness when someone waltzes in a room just to pick apart your character?
See how this can become a recipe for disastrous marital communication?
Instead, Mark says, “I don’t notice things like the cabinets being open, but I know you do, and disorder bothers you, so I’ll try harder to get better at it,” and he gives me a pat on the butt.
Butt pats aren’t a required communication tactic in a romantic relationship, but they don’t hurt.
I’ve never been a physically demonstrative person, but Mark is. Physical Touch is his love language for sure (more on the 5 Love Languages here ) so I make an extra effort to give cuddles, hugs, and kisses even though it doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to keep his love tank full!
And if you know anything about the 5 Love Languages, and you’ve read this far, you can probably guess what my language is: Acts of Service. When Mark does an entire sink of dishes or makes the bed, that feels like the equivalent of a big bear hug to me.
But TALLY-HO! Back to the Horsemen!
We’ve discussed Criticism and Defensiveness, but what other foundational relationship mistakes could we be making? What other Horsemen could be trodding all over our relationship?
We’ve probably all shared dinner or drinks or a night of midnight glow-in-the-dark bowling with a couple who seemingly hates each other. One rolls their eyes at everything the other says. They call each other names like “idiot” or “asshole,” and maybe it’s with a hint of sarcasm, but the only laughs they are getting are uncomfortable and awkward.
This is Contempt. And if you recognize it in your relationship, get rid of it fast, because it’s the greatest predictor of divorce or a split.
Contempt can also weaken your immune system. Yes, you read that right. All of those cheap shots and character attacks can make you physically ill! If you’re in a relationship filled with contempt, you better load up on your zinc and Emergen-C because you’re more likely to catch infectious diseases.
How do you break the cycle of contempt?
Dr. Gottman recommends you create an environment of appreciation and respect. Of course! How could your partner feel anything more than worthless when you are rolling your eyes at every joke they crack or when you mock them in front of your mutual friends?
Now you just have to make sure you brush your teeth every day. Hopefully, this habit is already fully ingrained.
Doing this simple exercise helps build a habit of seeking out the best in your partner and showing them gratitude. (Reminder: Tell Mark how much I admire how he can come up with joke after joke on twitter. He always makes me laugh!)
The Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling
Oftentimes, in a response to contempt, the other partner will stonewall. Physically they are present, but emotionally they have shut down. It is literally like trying to communicate with a wall. You get nothing in return.
Remember how I mentioned that contempt can cause physical responses? Stonewalling is often in reaction to those physical responses in the body. Emotions swell inside of a stone-waller, raising their heart rate and sometimes rendering them speechless. It’s what Gottman describes as physiological flooding.
He suggests that the couple takes a 20 minutes break to calm down. Here’s what’s important to make that break work:
You both have to agree on it
You both have to agree that you continue the conversation after the break
And you spend those 20 minutes apart from each other
This is a much better alternative to one person spewing venom, following their partner from room to room while the other tries to ignore them.
Which Horsemen rides through YOUR kitchen?
I know what you are thinking… which of the Four Horsemen does MY partner do the most?
But the real question is: which is YOUR go-to Horseman?
As we often repeat in our programs at the Art of Charm, the only person you have control over is you: the way you speak, react, process your feelings – all of it!
So the first step is to be honest with yourself and think about which of these behaviors you tend to lean toward.
No one is perfect. There are going to be days when you’re exhausted because the baby or your new puppy kept you up all night; you’re waiting to hear about test results; you got a terrible evaluation at work; I could list a million scenarios that would put a person in the position of not behaving in a way they are proud of. But if you go into those days armed with the knowledge of how you will most likely react, you have a much better chance of keeping that Horsemen reined in.
What’s your Horseman?
What’s one thing you could do to create new communication habits with your partner TODAY?
Drop your answer in the comments below.
And if you’re curious what Laura Heck, a marriage therapist from the Gottman Institute, has to say about avoiding those four Horsemen, point your ears this way:
Erin has been a teacher and coach in Los Angeles for over seven years. She's been an actor, writer, and producer for over 15 years but her favorite roles are that of "cool wife" and "best dog mom".
View all posts by Erin M →