Cira Center for Behavioral Health

The 4 Most Dangerous Things You Can Do In a Relationship and How To Avoid Them

by | Feb 20, 2015 | Blog

That’s a powerful thing to say right?  That there are four specific things you can do in a relationship that if done enough, over time will totally kill whatever good is there.  Might sound crazy, but it’s true.  For those of you who read my last post, you’re already familiar with Dr. John Gottman.  Gottman is one of the only people who has ever really studied love in a research setting with fantastic outcomes; a lot of what we know about love and relationships comes from his work.  What he has figured out after observing literally hundreds and hundreds of couples in his lab for years and years is that he can predict divorce with 91% accuracy after simply listening to a couple argue for 15 minutes or less.  Pretty impressive huh?  Well that accuracy is impressive, but that statistic scares the bejeezus out of most people.  We immediately start thinking, “Do I do any of these things??”… “Will my marriage/relationship survive??”.  Scary stuff.  It gets less scary though when you know what you’re dealing with…and what you can do about it.  So let’s get into it.
Gottman calls these four communication styles the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.  The first is criticism.  Uh-oh you’re thinking.  I’m critical of my partner all the time!  Relax for a second.  We’re all allowed to have complaints about our partners and our relationships – in fact they’re unavoidable especially if you are sharing space together.  But there’s a big difference between a complaint (You agreed to wash the dishes last night and I’m pissed you didn’t do it.) versus criticism (You are so lazy!  Why can’t you ever do anything that I ask you to!).  See the difference?  A complaint is simply an objective truth and your personal reaction to it.  Criticism takes it to a whole other level by assaulting your partner’s character or personality.  Ok, so you’re no more relaxed even after I differentiate between a compliant and criticism because…sigh…if you’re being honest with yourself, you criticize your partner.  Fear not – you are in good company.  This is the most common horseman and doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is going up in flames.  Just be mindful and work on it k?
The second horseman is contempt.  What does contempt look like in this context?  Well a lot of things.  Gottman defines it as “sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery and hostile humor”.  This one is bad news because it conveys that you’re disgusted with your partner…and we can imagine that feeling like you disgust someone does not make for a great relationship.  So…stop it already!  Just kidding – I know it’s not that easy.  Acting in a contemptuous way happens when there are long-standing issues that don’t get resolved.  So there’s step one in terms of changing this poisonous communication style: work your sh*t out the first time around!  If you’re too worked up to talk about something when it first comes up, take a break, but then try again.  Don’t let stuff hang only for it to come up the next time where you have the same argument that doesn’t get resolved all over again.  Capisce?
The third horseman is defensiveness.  Most of us probably cringe when we hear about this because defensiveness is all too familiar; it’s so easy to fall into a trap of becoming defensive, especially if we feel attacked.  But at it’s best, being defensive is making excuses that your partner isn’t likely to hear and, at it’s worst, is simply attacking back.  I know it sounds terrible in black and white, but it’s a whole lot harder to avoid in reality.  The best thing you can do is notice and express how you’re reacting rather than just reacting.  Does that make sense?  Here’s what being defensive might sound like: “It’s not like you’re great at washing the dishes either! Can’t you ever give me a break?”.  In contrast, noticing and verbalizing your reaction could sound like this: “I’m feeling really angry at you right now and I want to lash out at you, but I’m trying not to”.  Again, sounds easy, but we know when your adrenaline is kickin’, it’s not.  So practice, practice, practice. 
The fourth and last horseman is stonewalling.  That looks pretty much how it sounds; it’s giving your partner the cold shoulder, refusing to talk or participate in the discussion, or even leaving the room or the house.  At its most basic, it’s someone going into shutdown mode.  This is more than not really paying attention – when the person you’re talking to maybe looks at you or absent-mindedly says “yeah” or “uh huh” a couple times; this is when you or your partner act like you don’t care what is coming out of your partner’s mouth.  Bad feeling.  Are you the stonewaller?  If so, try to notice when you’re getting worked up and take a break before you go off the grid and come back to your partner when you’re feeling calmer.  If your partner is the one that stonewalls, s/he is stonewalling because they feel like YOU are attacking them (ahem, see the first three horseman).  So the same rules apply – take a break, take a breath, try again.
Are you relieved?  Totally freaked out?  Either way, here’s the good news: you’re reading this post, which means you want to work on your relationship.  The only way the four horsemen stomp your relationship to death is if you let them.  If you refuse to acknowledge your role in the problems your relationship is experiencing.  If you want to constantly blame your partner.  If you’re unwilling to work on changing your behavior or attitude.  If you’re willing to honestly look at yourself and your part and then genuinely try to do something different, that’s half the battle.  And ready to hear something really crazy?  When you mess up, as you surely will because you are human, you can always APOLOGIZE.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it!  But more on that later.  For now, let’s just work on recognizing when we’re not being nice to our partners and do something different.  That’s more than enough for now 😉