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The Key To Relationship Success…And Failure

How the Love Lab’s Four Horseman solution can become a problem

According to John Gottman’s Love Lab, which provides the most popular current advice on how to have a successful marriage, the key is to prevent the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from entering your relationship:

  1. Criticism: Attacking your partner’s personality or character, usually with the intent of making someone right and someone wrong.
  2. Contempt: Attacking your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse him/her.
  3. Defensiveness: Seeing self as the victim, warding off a perceived attack.
  4. Stonewalling: Withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict.
    Partners may think they are trying to be “neutral,” but stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation, disconnection and/or smugness.

Gottman arrived at these four relationship-ruining traits by analyzing in detail the correlation between people feeling subjected to them and the likelihood of the relationships failing.

Still, correlation is not causality and my guess is that the four horsemen are symptoms, not the cause of failure, which lies deeper. Hair loss is a symptom of cancer, but you can’t cure cancer with Rogaine.

My guess is that a campaign to banish the horsemen causes as much trouble as it solves. Here’s why:

We all apparently think there’s a difference between:

  1. Providing critical feedback (OK) and being critical (not OK),
  2. Not respecting a person (OK) and contempt (not OK),
  3. Defending oneself (OK) and defensiveness (not OK),
  4. Taking space (OK) and stonewalling (not OK).

What exactly is the difference between them? Certainly, their positive and negative connotations. Other than that? Is there any way to distinguish objectively between the OK and Not OK versions of these traits?

I don’t think there is. We distinguish them by means of subjective guesswork. For example, you size up someone’s argument and assess whether they are defending themselves or just being defensive. People will disagree, and there’s no objective standard by which to say who is right.

This is a problem not just with the horsemen, but with many psychology terms that are, on the one hand diagnostic, and on the other pejorative. People can wield them as though they are objective clinical descriptions, but such diagnoses often sound well, critical, contemptuous or defensive, actually.

If you tell your partner she stonewalls, how is that not a criticism? Diagnosing the horsemen ends up fomenting escalations that corral the horsemen right in the couple’s living room:

“Ouch. That was harsh criticism. Why do you have to be critical?”

“I’m not. I was just giving you critical feedback. Don’t be defensive.”

“I’m not being defensive. I was defending myself against your contempt.”

“I wasn’t being contemptuous. Fine, I’ll shut up.”

“What, you’re going to stonewall now?”

“I’m not stonewalling. I’m taking space!”

Gottman provides extreme examples to distinguish good from bad interpretations of these traits but the extremes aren’t where opinions differ. We can all agree that Hitler was expressing contempt, not just disrespect. With subtler cases, concensus is harder to achieve and impossible when blame is in the air, about to land on one or the other partner as in the dialogue above.

Indeed, in Gottman’s research, the traits are largely identified by partner response. If your partner squirms and reports as though you’re showing contempt, then, by Gottman’s standards, you are. If you each feel the other is showing contempt then you both are and you both should just stop it. That’s about as credible as saying that the way to end war is that everyone should just be nicer on the count of three. The Rogaine path to peace.

I’m sure Gottman’s right: Partnerships stampeded by the horsemen are in trouble. If you spend much of your time agitated, feeling like your partner is showing criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling, your prospects of a lasting partnership aren’t good. A successful partnership is one in which neither partner feels the horsemen imposed, and yes that probably means at least to some extent they actually aren’t imposed, both partners tending to see each other in a positive light.

Successful partnerships are ones in which both partners really do have respect rather than disrespect, feel free to talk rather than feel like they have to take psychic space rather than say anything that is likely to raise defensiveness, feel understood rather than feel like they need to defend themselves, and don’t have much about which they feel like giving critical feedback. The question is how does one achieve that?

Mostly, by partnering with someone sufficiently compatible, by having expectations well-matched to how much compatibility you can actually expect given who you are and who’s available to you, by having the kind of temperament that rounds up to a positive attitude about the remaining incompatibilities, and finally, by having great skills at nipping escalating negativity in the bud, mostly by changing the subject, or taking psychic space, which again can be called stonewalling if your partner wants to frame your response negatively.

Gottman frames his research questions as how to make partnerships successful and how to predict which partnerships will succeed, not as determining whether a partnership is even worth trying to make succeed. In this respect, it conforms to the can-do attitude implicit in most partnerships. It’s not framed such that it would celebrate healthy breakups between the incompatible.

But marriage at all costs isn’t everything, and if the horsemen are there, it’s often because the relationship has deeper underlying problems, of which the horsemen are just symptoms.

What then is if not everything, then at least more important than marriage?

Personal contentment and productivity I’d argue, having one’s mind and time free to pursue one’s elected ends until the end of one’s time among the living.

Many of us get that in partnership. Nothing keeps us off the streets and productive like a good partnership. Still, nothing distracts like having someone in your living room who doesn’t really like you and shows it in ways that feel like the horsemen to you.

And to give a partnership its best chance of being the safe haven that keeps us sane and productive? I’d argue two things as pertain to the horsemen: Avoid bringing the horsemen in. And avoid assuming that you know for certain that your partner has brought them in.

After all, rounding up to positivity would mean giving our partners at least some benefit of the doubt when they say for example, that they’re defending themselves, not just being defensive, that they’re taking space, not stonewalling. It means admitting that there is doubt about whether the horseshoe fits.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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