The Science of Good Relationships: Part 1
What if I told you that scientists have found 4 things that can ruin a relationship? Would you want to see if you do any of these 4 things? Would you want to know how to avoid them? If you have children, this should get your attention, since we know that good marriages yield better child outcomes. And with the divorce rate in America being 40-50%, it seems like marital success is at the mercy of a coin toss.
Fortunately, some scientists have dedicated their entire careers to figuring out what makes a relationship successful. For example, psychologist John Gottman could listen to a couple talk for 20 minutes, and predict with 90% accuracy whether or not the couple would get a divorce! How was he able to do this? By identifying whether the couple engaged in 4 negative communication patterns, deemed as the Four Horsemen. Gottman found that if couples used any of the Four horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) repeatedly while communicating, they were likely to divorce.
This should come as no surprise, since most people would agree that communication is the key to good relationships. What they fail to tell us is what exactly makes for good communication. Or better yet, what doesn’t? Well today we shall wonder no more! Below I go over each of the Four Horsemen in detail, and how to avoid them. The way to get the most out of this is to have an open mind and heart, and examine whether or not you resort to any of these when you talk to the ones you love. Chances are, like I found out for myself, you might.
Whenever someone makes us angry or begins to attack us verbally, one of the first lines of defense is attacking the other person back. We criticize their beliefs, thinking, or character. The problem with this response, is that when we criticize another person, we make gross generalizations. Psychologist have shown that we tend to attribute behavior to someone’s character or disposition, instead of the situation. In other words, when we see someone behave or respond in a certain way, we assume that that is who they are, as opposed to considering other factors that might have contributed to that behavior, such as a specific situation or past experiences. If you live in an big city, you have experienced this in traffic. Someone might have cut you off, and you just assume they are jerks. Could it be that they did not see you? Or that they are late for their little girl’s ballet recital and are trying everything possible to get there? This is what we often fail to consider. In fact, researchers have found that a lot of our behavior is a response to the environment and/or past experiences. So when we criticize someone, we often are making wrong assumptions about the person’s character or intentions ( and let’s remember what happens when we ass-u-me…)
So how might this look in the context of a relationship? Let’s look at Sally and Bob.
Sally had made 7 o’clock dinner plans. However, Bob was playing golf with his buddies earlier that day, and did not get home until 7:10pm. Sally feels angry and hurt that Bob would be late for their dinner date, and starts criticizing him, saying things like, “You only care about yourself. You are always late. You do not care about our marriage.”
The problem with this reaction is that, more than likely, Sally is being overly harsh with her criticism, which is currently being fueled by her anger. Sally is attacking Bob’s character, not just the fact that he was late. It could be that Bob’s car broke down, or that he sincerely lost track of time because he did not have a watch around. But instead of considering these other external factors for Bob’s behavior, Sally begins attacking his character.
Maybe Bob is always repeatedly late, and Sally has every right to be angry. But criticizing Bob is still a bad approach. Why? Because instead of listening to what Sally has to say or trying to fix the issue, Bob is now going to want to defend his character (defensiveness is the second horseman, which we discuss below). As you can see, this pattern is extremely toxic, because the issue never gets resolved; it becomes a war, where Sally attacks Bob and Bob tries to defend himself.
What might be even more detrimental to the relationship are the words we choose when we criticize others. If you get anything from this article, is that whoever said “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is probably an alien that never interacted with a human being. Once words are out, you can never take them back. Let’s not kid ourselves- words will always have an impact, whether good or bad. How do your choice of words impact your partner?
If criticizing is a no-no, how should we respond when a loved one behaves in a way that hurts us? This is where the famous “i-message” comes into play. Instead of criticizing Bob’s character, you focus on how the specific behavior made you feel. For example, Sally could have said “When you are late for plans I make, it makes me feel like I am not important.” Because this statement makes it more about how you feel, as opposed to the other person’s flaws, it avoids a situation where the other person just wants to defend themselves. Sally clearly communicated how she felt based on Bob’s behavior, but she did not attack Bob.
Now, if you were Bob, which statement do you think you would respond to better? Chances are, your partner would feel the same way.
When we begin to be defensive, we have one goal: to preserve ourselves, whether it is our ego, our resources, or our beliefs. While this may be a good thing in certain contexts, it is bad for relationships. Remember that the goal of a love relationship is to protect the relationship, not just yourself. So if you are too focused on just defending yourself, then you have no room to protect and grow the relationship.
Now, at this point, some of you may be confused. If someone attacks my character, how can I not say anything? Well, in my 26 years of experience, [most] people don’t just hurl insults or attack someone just because. It is usually a reaction to either their own personal beliefs (about others, themselves, or the world) and/or reactions to others’ behavior.
In the context of a relationship, if someone is criticizing you, then it is either a reaction to your behavior (past or present) or their beliefs. Either way, you always have a choice: you can either defend yourself and not listen to what they have to say, or you can try to understand where their criticisms are coming from. Is there some truth to what they are saying? And if so, how can you change to become a better person? Are their beliefs affecting the way they interpret your behavior? And if so, what are those beliefs? You see, by choosing not to be defensive, you move away from being the victim and take the opportunity to grow. By asking questions and listening, you can learn from both yourself and your partner. Defensiveness robs you of this valuable opportunity.
How would you think the situation with Bob and Sally would differ if, instead of Bob responding with, “ Well I work so hard for this family, I need to take care of myself.” He said, “I am sorry – why do you feel that way? Or, “ I know dinner was important to you, and I should have managed my time better. I will try to be on time next time.” I know that personally, I learned not to be defensive because of the way my husband always responded- instead of ever becoming defensive, he always tried to see it from my point of view first, and it made me realize that his response diffused the situation. Instead of defending himself, he tried to make me feel understood. This response allowed us to understand each other better, and to grow as a couple.
Next time your partner criticizes you, instead of becoming defensiveness, take a deep breath and consider asking questions as to why they think that way. Doing so will not only defuse the situation, but it will also provide you both with the opportunity to understand each other and grow together.
Most of us think that we could never have contempt for our partner. But contempt can actually be quite subtle. It can be anything from speaking to your partner in a sarcastic tone, or making fun of them in a public setting. Contempt is all about putting the other person down, instead of lifting them up. Now, I am not saying that you should not joke around with your partner or be lighthearted. But sometimes, we hide behind our humor to say what is on our mind in a disrespectful way. A lot of the times, we don’t even realize we are doing it. Phrases like “what is wrong with you” or “you look stupid” even if it is in a playful context can be harmful to your partner, and can evolve the relationship into one that does not respect the other. Remember, words have power and being judicious with our language goes a long way. Our words set the tone of our relationship, and when you allow harsh sarcasm or words to enter, you are immediately inviting a culture of disrespect. It always blows my mind that we are more likely to use harsh words and tones with the ones we love the most. Really, would you ever talk to a stranger the way you sometimes talk to our loved ones? I know I have fallen prey to this many times, and it is backwards, isn’t it? To combat this, I try to be very vigilant of the tone I use to speak to people, and whether what comes out of my mouth lifts him up or puts him down. Questioning our own behavior is the catalyst of change.
Contempt can not only disguise itself in humor, but it can also come up in our body language. Rolling our eyes, walking away when someone is talking to us, or even ignoring the other person is showing contempt. A lot of our communication is expressed via our body language, and it is important to be cognizant of the messages we are sending to our partner. Remember the golden rule? If you wouldn’t want someone to roll their eyes at you, then chances are, others feel the same way.
Stonewalling was probably the horseman that I most struggled with when Brett and I got married. He would do something that would bother me, but I would just bottle it up and not say anything. This would then make me be passive aggressive at times, or it would make me blow up for something insignificant. Not good for communication! I realized that my desire to avoid conflict made me stonewall. In other words, I would just shut down and not address my feelings. Communication, in essence, requires one to use words (I know, groundbreaking stuff ). So if you are just keeping it all in, then you never allow for good communication to occur! Now, I am the type of person that needs time to process my feelings. This can be a good thing, since it reduces the chances that I will say something out of anger. The problem arises when, after I finish processing my feelings, I never say anything. Again, this robs me of communicating with my husband and learning from each other. If you reflect on how you are feeling and then take healthy action on it then your relationship can progress. It is important to always communicate with your partner, even if it is uncomfortable at times.
Wrapping it up
Researchers have found that criticizing, becoming defensive, showing contempt, and stonewalling are extremely harmful for a relationship. Some of you may even say that the 4 horsemen actually help you win arguments, and that you sometimes use them and have NOT gotten a divorce!
Two foods for though regarding this line of thinking: if you won the fight, that means there was a loser- in your love relationship, do you really want there to be a loser? Second, sure, doing this will not necessarily lead to divorce- it takes a lot to make a marriage work. But is the end-goal here not getting a divorce, or having a thriving, happy relationship?
I can tell you from experience that applying these into my own relationship has avoided a lot of fights and potential hurt in my own marriage. I actually learned all of this information in college, and have been intentional about avoiding the 4 horseman when I communicate with my husband, or anyone for that matter (though I certainly don’t always succeed- it’s a choice I have to make every day!). But it is one of the best life lessons that Psychology has ever taught me.
My challenge to you is to try them out for just 7 days. It will be extremely difficult, because we are creatures of habits. Avoiding these 4 horsemen actually go against our nature, because the horsemen are all about self-preservation. But in a relationship, it is not about self-preservation anymore. It is about preserving a love relationship! And I am certain that avoiding these 4 horsemen in the relationship will make your relationship better. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain!
Want to know more about how to have successful relationships? This article is part of a 2-part series about the science of good relationships. Here, we went over 4 of the most destructive habits that people do in relationships. In part 2, we will go over 3 of the best habits people do that predicts successful love relationships. See you in part 2!
Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 5-22.
Jones, E. E., & Davis, K. E. (1965) From acts to dispositions: the attribution process in social psychology, in L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Volume 2, pp. 219-266), New York: Academic Press
Ross, L. (1977). The Intuitive Psychologist And His Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process1. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173-220). Academic Press.