How to quickly ruin even the best Relationship

In the course of his studies with couples the relationship researcher John Gottman identified five behaviors that he actually christened the “The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. According to his research, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse represent communication patterns with a sufficiently destructive influence that, if given a free reign, almost pre-ordain the demise of even the most perfect relationships. In case you are living in a relationship – or are entertaining the thought to do that (again) – it would probably be beneficial to identify these threatening creatures and in that way get a bead on your mutual enemies. That gives you the opportunity to unmask and banish these harbingers of doom while you still have the chance!

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The First Horseman: Criticism

It is understood that there is rarely a partnership without domestic disputes and one partner occasionally complaining about the other. That is entirely normal and probably also quite healthy because it demonstrates that two totally different people have found each other who are not just a pair of Siamese twins always agreeing with each other (how boring!!). So, go ahead and complain if something bothers you. However – according to Gottman –limit it to the complaint and don’t make it a criticism about your partner’s character or his/her person! That represents a small but extremely important difference. A complaint deals with a certain behavior and in the ideal case with one (or several) incidents. How about some examples?
“There is no milk. You had promised to pick some up.”
“You are totally unreliable! You always forget everything! Now we are without milk!”

“We had agreed that you get home at 4:30 at the latest on Fridays to drive the children to judo on time. This is the second time that I missed my yoga because you got home late and I had to take them. That irritates me.”
„You don’t care about your children and me! You always think only about yourself and your stupid job. I wonder why I ever married you!“
I admit that it can get pretty difficult to stay cool and stick to the first phrasing particularly if one is really annoyed. Nevertheless, in the case of this communication behavior it’s important to be as disciplined as possible. For a start, if at all possible it would be a step in the right direction to avoid words like “always”, “never”, “again”, “a thousand times”, etc.

The Second Horseman: Defensiveness

How do you normally respond when someone attacks or criticizes you? Understandably with a natural instinctive defensive reaction. For instance in response to the above rebuke with: “When I occasionally have to work a little longer, you immediately gripe but then you don’t complain about the moolah I bring home!” Basically an understandable reaction; first of all it is a response to being attacked, and then it is also the attempt to justify a behavior with an explanation. This horseman is easily recognizable with phrasings like “yes, but . . .“ or also “that’s wrong!” Here the problem is that this reaction albeit very human, does not contribute to any de-escalation on the contrary, and there are two reasons for that: First of all the other automatically sees him/herself as the accused and also as being attacked. Add to that the sense that his/her complaint is not being taken seriously and that the subject is just being swept off the table. The consequence: He/she may get even louder, more aggressive, turning things up a notch to finally hear what he/she really wants to hear: “Yes, you are right, I am sorry. I should have kept an eye on the time or at least called.” This would at least take the wind out of his/her sails and give both partners some time to cool down – and that would then be a good time to look for constructive ways to resolve the problem. Maybe then it would be possible to say to him/her: “In our place Friday evenings are often a really bad time to leave early. Isn’t there something we can do to resolve that in another way? I really hate to see you miss your appointment all the time.”

The Third Horseman: Contempt

When he crosses your path, watch out: Gottman calls him the “sulfuric acid of love”. No wonder if one considers his characteristics: sarcasm, cynicism, rolling of the eyes, mocking, provoking, parroting, ridiculing, dismissive or flippant humor: “When did you finally discover the dishwasher’s location in this house?” - “You are a just a hysterical bitch – no wonder with that dysfunctional family of yours!” - „Now you want to run home to Momma and complain about your terrible husband/wife? Go ahead, you are just a momma’s boy/girl, anyway!”

With this equestrian villain the issue is not to constructively change something, but just to keep piling on – and that deliberately and with the intention to hurt. This third horseman represents an exceptional amount of aversion and rejection. Another prevalent variation of contempt is the technique to hold intimate things the partner has previously mentioned against him/her during a fight. A terrible abuse of confidence.

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The Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling

A horseman especially preferred by (due to relationship issues stressed-out) men. Women also sometimes ally themselves with him. Silence, no reaction, turning away, stone faced – those are the hallmarks of this harbinger of doom. There is no question that it can sometimes be preferable not to react to a complaint right away but wait until things have cooled off. This may also help prevent the fight from escalating. However, here it is important to signal: “Let me step away to cool off so we can discuss this reasonably. Let‘s continue the conversation in half an hour / tomorrow morning / tonight.” That doesn’t represent stonewalling because one demonstrates that one wants to benefit the relationship by being ready and willing to maintain the contact. That is something totally different from hiding unapproachably behind a newspaper, just leaving or ignoring one’s partner. Stonewalling and retreating are effective means to relegate the other person to irrelevance and to suggest: You mean nothing to me, I don’t appreciate you, you are invisible to me. And what could possibly be more destructive for a relationship than that?

The Fifth Horseman: Belligerence

“Go ahead, complain until you are blue in the face, I don’t care.”
“Now we do what I say, I am not interested in any further discussions.”
“You have no idea what this is all about, anyway.”
Those who demonstrate their power in this way signal to the other: I don’t care about your needs, I am not interested in compromises, I assert my will regardless of the cost. That is unquestionably the death sentence for any happy relationship. But then power can also be demonstrated by other means of communicating: Those who continuously cut in on the other person and interrupt him/her at every opportunity, those who simply ignore that which the other has said and continuously respond with you-messages (“you are”. . .you have . . .” etc.) also demonstrate that he/she is in fact ignoring the other person. No partnership can survive that in the long run.

Now that you have met the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse you can stop them whenever they appear at your door. It may also be important to know that they don’t always show up in this sequence. Although “Criticism” actually prefers to be point man and “Contempt” frequently brings up the rear, Gottman has characterized the five as a “relay team” where each one of them simply passes the baton to the next horseman when a couple is unable to break the vicious circle. Obviously you don’t have to get all distraught in case you have recognized one or the other of the troublemakers while reading this – except for “contempt” sooner or latter most happy couples are going to encounter them at one time or the other. The difference between happy and unhappy couples simply lies in the fact that the happy couples are eager to show the door to the troublemakers, while unhappy couples get more and more entangled in these equestrian games.

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