For those of you who have read some of my other posts, I frequently cite a well-known relationship researcher named John Gottman.
Gottman is one of the most recognized researchers in marriage and family therapy and has conducted research with couples where he discovered something that had never been even allowed to be researched before:
There are distinct patterns and sequences of behavior in couples
Before he conducted his research, it was widely believed that couples could not be studied because it was nearly impossible at that time to develop patterns of behavior for an individual much less a couple. Gottman proved that couples have extremely regular patterns of behaviors.
Better yet, Gottman was able to create such a well-developed methodology that he is able to determine which couples are happy and which are not happy based on their patterns of interaction. The research he conducted and the conclusions he was able to draw helped him create what he dubs;
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
The “horsemen” are labeled as counterproductive behaviors that have a negative impact on your relationship. They usually pop up in and around an argument.
Ultimately, Gottman can guarantee that if these four “horsemen” consistently show up during your marriage, there is a 93% chance divorce or a breakup will occur.
For those of you who think that is a high figure
For those of you who doubt that percentage I am here to tell you that in my own work with couples I can attest to the validity of that statistic. Granted, everyone has these behaviors; it is a matter of how often they are used in conflicts that will get you the 93%.
The “horsemen” have been discussed many times in psychology research or articles. What I find these articles lack is a connection to modern day relationships.
In world of constant communication, instant video chats, online dating sites, sites like Facebook where you can connect to others through a messenger system, security advances like codes for phones, etc. it is essential to connect these basic yet important concepts from relationship research to modern day couples.
Relationships are not as simple as they were when there was a house phone and snail mail.
So let’s start with what the four “horsemen” are: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
To the average relationshipper, those are all very similar in definition. Let me break down each “horsemen” and make some connections on how you could commit an offense with one of them in a modern relationship.
Criticism is one of the most typical behaviors couples engage in during conflicts. Criticism is going after someone’s character or who they are.
By targeting your partner’s personality, the issue with criticism is that it has the ability to attack character as opposed to behavior
The second horseman is defensiveness and it is very easy to fall into defensiveness.
Typically, when partners engage in defensive behavior, the argument turns into a blaming game instead of a quest for understanding
When you engage in defensiveness, it becomes very difficult to hear your partner and to gain an acceptance of from where they are coming.
The 3rd horsemen (labeled as the worst of the horsemen)
Contempt can be difficult to understand, so I put it in the category of mocking or making fun of your partner. Granted, humor can be used to alleviate many situations, but it turns into contempt when it becomes blatantly disrespectful. Things like calling your partner names or eye rolling are signs of contempt.
The last of the horsemen is stonewalling. This occurs when a partner turns away from the relationship instead of toward their partner. It is a decision to not work through what is happening.
When considering these horsemen, or behaviors of impending doom for a relationship, we have to look at how they manifest in the here and now especially with technology. The one that stands out to me immediately is stonewalling.
With instant communication, it has never been easier to reach our partners at any point during the day…until they decide to become unreachable. It is fairly easy to block someone’s phone number, delete text messages, ignore phone calls from only one person.
When it comes to criticism, I think modern technology has made it easier to criticize your partner
Sending a text message on the fly without really thinking about what you’re saying leaves space for criticisms to sneak into the message.
It is easy to send a message to someone with a helpful tip and due to a lack of context or inflection, the person reading it could interpret it as a criticism.
Contempt makes me cringe because when I see it happen in my therapy room, it is never pretty
I often feel second-hand hurt for the receiver. Too often Facebook posts and Instagram posts are used to subtly make fun or put down your partner.
The act of “liking” a pretty woman’s picture, the notion of Facebook messaging someone after a fight with your partner and saying you are single are all ways contempt plays out in modern relationships. Social media creates a space for judgment to blossom which is how many relationships get shaken.
So where does this leave us?
Relationships are complicated, and technology makes them even more complicated. It is important to establish boundaries around your relationship that both you and your partner agree upon first and foremost.
When the four horsemen pop up often in your relationship, every week or every day, I suggest seeking some help in breaking those patterns. Finding a systems therapist, like an LMFT, is a great first step in trying to understand the way you communicate now and how you want it to change.
Lastly, my rule of thumb in relationships is the 5:1 ratio.
For every one negative interaction that occurs, you must do 5 positive things to counteract it.
Tell me what you think! Are you guilty of acting on some of the horsemen?