So, you disagree with your partner from time to time. You may even fight. Big deal. It always blows over, and you make up. Nothing wrong with that, right? Well, it really depends on what you say in the heat of the argument. According to marriage researcher John Gottman, who spent decades studying the behavior of thousands of couples as they interact with each other in his laboratory, there are four destructive forces that often surface in any negative interaction. They don’t necessarily spell doom for the marriage (despite their ominous name, the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse), but their repeated appearances can rapidly erode the relationship. What are they? What can you do to prevent them from wearing you and your partner down? Read on.
Horseman One: Criticism
You partner forgets to take out the garbage even when you’ve reminded him or her twice. You are frustrated, and you know you want to express your feelings to your partner about it. Which of the following are you more likely to say (honestly now):
- The garbage is still here. Why didn’t you take it out like you said you would an hour ago?
- Why can’t you remember anything I said? I’ve told you many times, but you just don’t care.
What do you notice about the two statements? Can you tell that Statement A is a complaint while Statement B is a criticism?
A complaint states the specific action that needs to be done or your partner has failed to do. A criticism, on the other hand, implies a character flaw, or generalization to other situations. Words such as always and never are common in criticisms. The listener ends up feeling attacked, blamed, and discredited for all the other times when he or she did step up.
Criticisms are common in any relationship (think about some of the unpleasant conversations you may have had with your family or colleagues that left you feeling hurt). However, this doesn’t mean we can let it go. If we allow it to take hold of our interactions, we open the door to the other, more deadly, Horsemen.
The next time your partner forgets or fails to do something, bring up the incident and state your feelings about the incident itself, not about your partner. Tell him or her clearly what you had expected, such as:
You were supposed to have mailed out the checks last week. I’m really worried they’ll impose a fine now that we’re past due.
Other forms of criticisms include the use of rhetorical questions (How could you …? When will you ever …?) or dramatic expressions (I can’t believe you’ve blown our budget again!) A listener who hears criticism is likely to respond with Defensiveness, the second Horseman of Apocalypse. I will talk more about this in my next post.