How to avoid a relationship apocalypse
Updated: Apr 14
This month I have been lucky enough to attend a workshop with Dr John Gottman, one of the world’s leading relationship experts. He and his wife Julie are based in Seattle, but teach internationally and this month came to share their wisdom in Wellington.
Gottman and his team have studied romantic relationships extensively over a period of 40 years. He is perhaps best-known for his claim that he can predict with 94% accuracy whether your relationship will succeed or fail based on a few minutes of interaction between you and your partner!
His research studied thousands of couples’ interactions in his ‘love lab’, a retreat-type environment set up with cameras to film couples in as close to a natural environment as possible. Through this he identified four major factors that spell disaster for any relationship. He called these (rather memorably) ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ and they are:
Criticism – Pointing out your partner’s faults as personality defects, looking for what they’re doing wrong and making blaming statements and accusations
Contempt – Expressing a sense of superiority, which could be in the form of mocking, teasing, name-calling or eye-rolling
Defensiveness – Responding to issues your partner raises with a counter-attack, refusing to take responsibility for your own part in a situation
Stonewalling – Shutting your partner out, emotionally withdrawing and refusing to listen
Don’t panic if you recognise some of these very common behaviours in yourself or your partner. None of us are perfect! Gottman claims that it is the ratio of positive to negative interactions that is key. In the thousands of couples he studied, he found that those with healthy and happy relationships tend to have a ratio of 5 positive interactions to 1 negative. In this sense each relationship has a kind of ‘emotional bank balance’ where every positive gesture or exchange makes a deposit into that account and every negative one makes a withdrawal. The overall ‘bank balance’ is a reflection of the state of health of your relationship.
We can build that ‘bank balance’ in many different ways, including expressions of gratitude, kindness and appreciation, and what Gottman refers to as ‘turning towards’ your partner’s bids for connection. A bid for connection is any attempt your partner makes to engage with you, which could be as simple as ‘look at this’, to which you can respond by turning towards (‘ah yes I see it’) or turning away (‘not now, can’t you see I’m busy’). These may seem like very small and insignificant moments, but a relationship is ultimately made up of a lifetime of small moments.
Gottman also outlines antidotes to the ‘4 horsemen of the apocalypse’ which we can learn to put into practice to improve our relationships. These include:
Use a gentle start up – If you have an issue you need to raise, rather than starting the conversation with criticism of the other person (‘you never do the dishes, you’re so lazy’), start with an ‘I’ statement expressing your own needs (‘I feel stressed when the kitchen’s a mess’).
Build appreciation and respect –The antidote to contempt is to build a culture in your relationship of expressing positive feelings and gratitude, whilst developing more skilful ways of expressing your needs and feelings, as in the example above.
Accept responsibility for your part of the problem – Rather than a defensive response, it can be helpful to admit that there may be a kernel of truth in your partner’s position (as well as your own position). This goes a long way towards stopping conflicts from escalating by allowing each person to feel heard and validated in their point of view.
Learn physiological self-soothing – When there’s conflict in a relationship we can very easily be triggered into a ‘fight or flight’ response in the body. This is the body’s in-built stress response, the response that makes our heart-rate and breathing increase, or our palms sweat . When we are in fight or flight mode, our perceptions of the world around us become very narrow (focused on the perceived threat) and we lose our capacity to listen and see the bigger picture. This is usually what’s happening when someone starts to stonewall their partner. Learning to take time out from an argument and calm the body’s physiology (through slow breathing, taking a walk etc) enables us to return to the discussion in a more open and balanced state of mind, allowing us to stay emotionally connected to our partner, even in the midst of a conflict.
The overall take home message is that conflict and anger are a normal part of a committed relationship, but it is how we tackle these challenging conversations that makes the difference. So if you want to increase the chances of a satisfying relationship and reduce the risk of a relationship apocalypse, look out for the 4 horsemen showing up and work on building your ‘bank account’ of positive interactions.