For twenty-something year olds, family gatherings guarantee one question: is there anyone special in your life? If you are already cringing just thinking about your upcoming Thanksgiving dinner, you’re likely no stranger to the endless flow of relationship “advice” from every one of your grandparents, aunts, great-aunts and family friends. Some advice seems helpful (“Couples that play together stay together”), other advice laughable (“The secret to a happy marriage is living across the street from your wife”) and some completely ridiculous (“If you take the last dessert on the plate, you’ll end up an old maid”).
While your Aunt Maggie might make the best blueberry pie that you’ve ever had, her four divorces should serve as some indication that there might be better qualified relationship experts. Two such experts have actually documented the secret to relationship success and it’s based on more than folklore. John Markman and Howard Gottman’s findings are so accurate that the researchers can predict – with 94% accuracy – whether a marriage will succeed or fail. And best of all, it has nothing to do with holding yourself back from the last brownie bite.
In the Bible, the four horsemen of the apocalypse foreshadow the destruction of mankind. Similarly, the researchers found that when four specific behaviors – termed ‘horsemen’ - became fixtures in a couple’s fighting pattern, the relationship was also on the path to ruin. The first horseman, “global criticism” involves making negative generalizations about a partner’s behavior. This type of criticism is particularly hurtful because it attacks the person’s character and highlights their shortcomings. When your significant other spends all of dinner with your in-laws boasting about his new corner office, it’s reasonable to be frustrated. Voicing your concerns and frustrations is important, but the way that you give your partner feedback greatly impacts relationship success. Comments that generalize behavior, for example, “You always talk about yourself, you’re so self-centered,” are best replaced by focused criticism that observes the problem, highlights the impact it has on you, and explains a desired change. Saying, “It upsets me when you cut me out of the conversation, and I need you to include me when we’re with other people” gives your partner the same feedback you were trying to achieve through the global criticism, but in a manner that allows for positive change and that won’t kill the sparks in your relationship.
The second horseman, contempt, includes both verbal and nonverbal communication of disdain and disrespect. No one would suggest that name-calling, mocking, sneering or using hostile humor is ideal fighting behavior, but you might not realize how harmful your annoyed eye-roll is to your relationship. Contempt conveys disgust and superiority. Expressions of contempt are psychologically, verbally and emotionally abusing; Gottmann believes that contempt is the most toxic of the four horsemen and is the most obvious indicator that a relationship is in trouble. In subsequent studies, Gottman was even able to link expressions of contempt from a significant other to increased health problems, like the frequency of catching a cold.
Another common mistake made by couples is turning their fights into “right-wrong” competitions. This pattern is problematic because it pits partners against each other, and consequently, puts one person on the offensive and the other on the defensive. Defensiveness, which is the third horseman, manifests itself through excuses and lines like, “It’s not my fault,” which evade responsibility. When you get defensive and assume the role of the victim, the discussion crosses boundaries into traditional “winner and loser” fighting and becomes damaging to the relationship.
The fourth horseman, stonewalling, involves ‘stony’ silence, changing the subject, or physically walking away from the situation. You might think that by stonewalling you are preventing a fight or keeping the argument from escalating, but you are actually conveying indifference and an icy distance. Stonewalling has a broader effect of interrupting or entirely circumventing the conversations that help you continue to relate to your partner. Stonewalling might seem like the easiest way to cut off a fight in the moment, but it literally erects a stone wall in your relationship that has long lasting negative effects.
Learning about the four horsemen likely leads you to reconsider your last fight, or even your last relationship. The horsemen seem to provide a rubric for analyzing unfair fighting patterns. Still, we each honestly believe that we are the easiest person to date. If a relationship doesn’t work, surely it isn’t because of something that we did. The line “It’s not you, it’s me” is humorously ironic – we never really think it’s us. But actually, if the four horsemen are regular parts of the way you fight, you might be the reason that your relationships fail. The simple truth is that if you want to be in any successful relationship, you have to learn to fight fair.