Four Horseman- The Relationship Killer

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Studies have shown that if we have high standards in our relationships, then it leads to more happiness over the years- provided you can obtain and meet the standards. The classic Therapists line, where we are told to address our problems -and not avoid them, seems to be a key factor in relationship success. People who were direct about their discontent in the relationship, and were able to discuss them, were more likely to be satisfied than those who avoided issues, used sarcasm or defensiveness.

A study by JK McNulty from Florida State University looked at 135 couples in a longitudinal study. They were assessed at point of union then every six months over a four-year period. He found that there is an implicit measure, a subconscious assessment made when we are with someone. This implicit measure indicates whether we will be happy over time. The study measured this by asking participants to respond to words as negative or positive- after they viewed photographs of their partner. Those who had more positive affect to words post viewing the photos had higher relationship satisfaction. So we have an implicit internal measure on a subconscious level as to whether we think our relationship has a future. Many experts believe this is based on how we talk, fight and if we feel validated. But what are the overt big predictors of relationship success- and what does a Relationship Counsellor look for when a couple presents in their office? We cant know the implicit measures but it is obvious when a couple has a session and begins to talk, the way they interact, listen, argue- are all indicators of whether the relationship will last. Sometimes its in the way we disagree that Therapists can see what substance the relationship has, how a couple resolves and repairs is integral to relationship satisfaction and in turn success.

The Gottman Institute in the USA was the pioneer, not only identifying verbal and visual predictors, but also naming them. In a longitudinal study conducted in labs couples were observed in their daily conversations. They enter into the love lab and are observed over an extended period, allowing the authenticity to present. The couples who talk openly and communicate were happier, but it was also how they communicated and responded to their partners that were the predictors. The four horseman of the apocalypse were identified. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling were the big four. If any of these were present in the couple’s dialogue- problems arose. The most successful relationships that demonstrated not only longevity but also content, rarely used the big four, or repaired quickly if they crept into discussions.

Defensiveness occurs readily for most of us. When our partner uses the word “you” in any statement we often find ourselves defensive of our actions. Learning ways to reframe and deliver from our perspective often commands a better response. For example when your partner forgets to include you in their plans we feel left out. Instead of saying “you never invite me anywhere”- and their response will likely be “ but I invited you last week”- you say how it makes you feel. Reframing the statement to “ I felt left out when I wasn’t invited” is what we call a soft start up. Soft start-ups end in more positive results and our partner’s response is gentle, and less defensive. As with criticism soft start ups are the key to not only being heard but allows our partner to understand what we need. I feel….because….I need…. is the phrase that, when implemented into your dialogue, changes the way you interact with your partner and achieves understanding and positive affect. Contempt is often the hardest to curb. We react when someone tells us what we have done, or not done by eye rolling, exaggerated breaths and small head gestures, all of which send signals to our partner that we aren’t listening, or we don’t care what they are saying. It is one of the most difficult things to stop as most of us do so subconsciously. Couples who have healthy and harmonious relationships learn to adjust the reactive behaviours, like contempt-or at least highlight them. The last of the four horsemen in stonewalling. Stonewalling happens when we are emotionally flooded and shut down. When our heart rate reaches 100+ pbm we know that we no longer listening. We go into a protective role and don’t take anything in. We have all either found ourselves doing it or been at the receiving end. A normal response is to either talk louder to the person who has stonewalled us, or be critical which in turn exacerbates the situation. They stonewall even more and shut down even further. Allowing them to self soothe, and allowing ourselves to do the same ,self-soothing or calming down, is the most advantageous action. Let the emotions calm, the heart rate return to normal and return in a calmer state allowing issues to be resolved.

Gottman also notes that whilst the four horsemen are important to identify each relationship has its own subjective ways to deal with conflict. Avoidant relationships often make light of the differences between the couple. They discuss them but don’t put enormous emphasis on resolving the difference. They embrace the variance and agree to disagree. They often have high autonomy within the relationship but a strong bond to the relationship itself and are committed. Volatile relationships fight hard, laugh more and easily discuss both the negative and positive aspects of the relationship. They bond more when they fight as they have the skills and tolls to resolve the conflict and may often end up happier once they have done so. The other style of relationship is the validating relationship. This is when they learn to compromise and work things out- often calmly. They tend to have more stereotypical roles within the relationship and are happy to identify them, work through them and stick to them. We all have varying styles but understanding and learning what works best for a couple allows us to deal with conflict easily.

So- it really is by the way we disagree, or fight- that we can see the core strength of the relationship itself. Longevity and happiness come when we settle into our relational style (avoidant, volatile or validating) and are able to resolve the conflict within it, by identifying four horsemen. When a couple sit on the lounge and begin to discuss issues it is the way they respond, listen and validate their partners view that is incredibly insightful. It is even more insightful when we sit back and allow a big issue or conflict to arise. Not all relationships innately have the skills to do this alone and sometimes the tools are needed to navigate through situations. A trained relationships counsellor observes a couples style and teaches them techniques and styles to not only communicate well, but more importantly how to fight well. It really is in the fighting and repair we see the keys to relationship success.