Four Ways to Take Responsibility
for Saving Your Relationship
If you find the right partner and want to stay together, it’s your response-ability to know those ways and how to avoid them. John Gottman, a leading researcher on successful marriages and couple’s therapist, cites the negative ways couples communicate—which, he says, are guaranteed to cause a divorce.
John Gottman, a leading researcher on successful marriages and couple’s therapist, cites the negative ways couples communicate—which, he says, are guaranteed to cause a divorce. If you find the right partner and want to stay together, it’s your response-ability to know those ways and how to avoid them. Gottman refers to his “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse . . . four disastrous ways of interacting that sabotage your attempts to communicate with your partner.” In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he addresses them in increasing order of danger:
Gottman’s relationship advice is that over time, a couple using these Four Horsemen to communicate will become more and more entrenched in negativity, leading to a breakup or divorce:
Relationship Advice #1: Avoid Criticism
There’s no room for criticism in a relationship. It’s like trying to smoke and jog at the same time—you can’t perform one action while doing the other.
However, it’s vital to distinguish a criticism from a complaint. It’s appropriate to tell a partner your frustrations and complain about your partner’s behaviors or statements. Too often, criticism is projection, in which people throw their own issues onto their partners. In short, criticism can be a form of self-abuse: Instead of being critical of something objectionable in you, you accuse your partner of it instead.
But we’re all human! When we’re hurt and feel pain, often we lash out at those we love most. So it may not be realistic to completely avoid criticizing. Your goal is to greatly reduce it in your relationship.
The best relationship advice about being in a relationship is always to be as intentional as you can. After voicing any criticism, at least express an apology. Be accountable for your error and never blame your partner for it, as all too many do: “Well, if you stop acting that way, I wouldn’t have to lose my temper.”
Relationship Advice #2: Remove Contempt
Contempt is when you express the disrespectful attitude that individuals are inferior or worthless, purposely insulting and psychologically abusing them. Shaking your head and rolling your eyes sends a non-verbal message: “I discount what you’re saying, because you’re ridiculous and a fool.”
Partners often say things like, “Don’t you know that?” or “What’s wrong with you?” or “I can’t believe I have to tell you things like this!”— Usually with an aggrieved expression and patronizing tone, as if these speakers were superior in some way.
One partner will begin a sentence with:
- “In a relationship, two people should . . .”
- “Most people who want to be together are . . .”
When giving relationship advice to clients about relationships, I help them remember that once they start to preach about how things “should be,” they’ve assumed a contemptuous stance and are trying to impose their righteous attitude on others. Obviously, this does not work in relationships of any kind.
Relationship Advice #3: Stop Defensiveness
The more critical and contemptuous you act, the more defensive your partner will become. Unleashing your reactive anger in a relationship makes you seem frightening, and the more threatened other people feel, the more defensive they’ll get.
On your side, being defensive denies your accountability and responsibility for the problem. Yes, it arises from a positive motive, in that you’re seeking to protect yourself. But by doing so, you’re denying your part in the disagreement between you two.
Self-defensive statements include:
- “I didn’t really mean it.”
- “That wasn’t my intention.”
- “I didn’t know” or “I didn’t realize . . . “
- “Well, at least it all worked out.”
- “What about the time you did that to me?”
- “I don’t like your tone of voice.”
Statements like this relieve you of being responsible, for owning your own words and behavior. They block any introspection on your part. The relationship advice I give is not to start talking about yourself until you first acknowledge what the other person is saying. Then if you still feel the need to discuss some topic, do to so after you’ve honestly listened to what your partner has to say.
Relationship Advice #4: Let Go of Stonewalling
This style of responding sabotages communication. The stonewaller doesn’t react to the partner who’s speaking. Committed listeners will give encouraging signals like “Uh-huh” or “Hmmm,” but stonewallers just sit in unresponsive silence. As John Gottman writes, “they are trying to be ‘neutral’ and not make things worse. They do not seem to realize that stonewalling itself is a very powerful act: It conveys disapproval, icy distance, and smugness. It is very upsetting to speak to a stonewalling listener.” The main message any stonewaller sends is that he’s disengaged and not listening.
The relationship advice to remember above all is that you want to add as many positives into your marriage or partnership, to counteract as many negatives as possible. At the beginning of your relationship, this is easy, but much harder to do as the relationship matures. But at any stage, it is well worth the effort!