Most couples throughout their relationship, whether they cohabitate or live separately, experience conflict. Conflict is an inescapable aspect of life; it’s a given. It comes with life itself. In fact, when a couple report…..”We never fight”, whilst this may be a good thing, I may also wonder how safe the relationship really is for one or both partners to be able to express a need or a feeling without fear of being shamed, made to feel guilty or punished in some other way.
Why do relationships breakdown?
Relationships become dysfunctional because of the way couples fight, more so than what they actually fight about. According to the Gottman Institute, 69% of problems couples argue about are perpetual, in other words, irresolvable. A perpetual issue could be that one person wants sex more frequently than the other, or that one partner wants to save money, whereas the other has a tendency to spend. Whatever the issue, generally speaking, it is the way we argue our point of view that causes ongoing friction in our relationships not the problems themselves.
How Fair Do You & Your Partner Fight? What Tactics Do You Use To Get Your Point Across?
Expressing anger appropriately can do wonders for your relationship. It means you feel safe enough to be able to say how you feel with a partner who – because of the way you’ve expressed your feelings, is able to absorb a significant amount of your protest. However, when anger is channelled through what John Gottman refers to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a metaphor depicting the end of time in the New Testament, it can predict a communication style that Gottman believes can result in the end of a relationship and even physical illness and disease.
The four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse: A metaphor for depicting the end of a relationship
The four horsemen Gottman refers to are: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. Let’s look at each one separately. Criticism: The first horseman in a relationship is criticism. Criticism is not a critique of something. A critique is more balanced in that it takes in to account exceptions. It is also more specific in that it articulates a point without becoming global. A criticism, on the other hand, is more global and tends to have global language like, always and never. For example, “You never take out the garbage”, or “You’re always late”. Notice how a criticism excludes exceptions. Maybe you took the garbage out last week, but for whatever reason, it wasn't noticed by your partner. If we were to take out the ‘always’ and ‘never’ we could turn the criticism into a complaint. For example, “It would help me a lot if you took the garbage out more often than you do”. Or, “I’d appreciate it if you could try to be more punctual or at least let me know how late you will be”. Defensiveness: The second horseman is defensiveness. Defensiveness and criticism seem to go hand in hand; if you criticize me, I’ll put my wall up to ward off your attack and in the process I might even attack you back. Now what we have is an interactional or conflict pattern that is ‘attack-attack’. Or, I may deal with your criticism by withdrawing, so now our pattern is ‘attack-withdraw’. There are, however, times when a partner can make a complaint and the other will get defensive, regardless of how well the complaint is made. Becoming defensive is a trap many of us fall into from time to time. It’s about owning our part in the dispute, even when we are under fire. Couples who are good at relationships might respond to a complaint by saying something like....."I see what you mean. I didn't realize I came across so loud. I'll try to be more mindful of how anxious I can get when we're talking about money". Contempt: The third Horsemen is contempt. Contempt has been shown to be the greatest predictor of divorce and physical illness in heterosexual and same sex couples. Where criticism is more global, ie. you never, you always....., contempt aims to assassinate the character of the person, for example: "You're always late. You're just so selfish. All you ever think about is self, self, self. You don't care about anyone else". Contempt can also be covert...hidden where the person turns up their nose, rolls their eyes or pulls a facial expression designed to offend. Covert contempt can be plausibly deniable......"I don't know what you're talking about, I didn't say or do anything. It's in you imagination". Whether overt or covert, contempt causes severe relational wounding resulting in irrevocable damage. Stonewalling The forth horsemen that can predict divorce, however, to a lesser degree than contempt is stonewalling. Stonewalling is when an individual shuts-down, turns away, or maintains eye contact, but tunes out; nothings going in. Gottman's research showed that about 85% of men used stonewalling to ward off further attacks. In a stonewalling state, Gottman found that the heart rate of the stonewaller was 100 + beats per minute, about 25-35 beats above an average adult's base line heart rate . However, often a stonewaller will have no interest in returning to the issue after he or she has calmed down, resulting in the conflict not being processed. It’s important to remember that even good relationships have elements of the four horsemen, Gottman refers to in his research, however, what makes one relationship stable, happy and survive the test of time, and another fold within the first six to seven years, is the degree to which the four horsemen are used. When a marriage is ailing or headed for dissolution, couples tend to use all the four horsemen to chronic levels, particularly the most damaging: contempt. Further, these couples are not able to consider, let alone accept, the influence of their partner. According to Gottman, men, especially, have great difficulty accepting influence from women. Nonetheless, together, they have constructed a brick wall that separates and protects them from each other. Neither feels safe and secure enough to let the other in. Their interactions are hostile and or dismissive and they have become emotionally disengaged. If you believe your relationship has reached this level of unhappiness, then the time to act is now.Give us a call or send us an email and we can arrange for you to see a highly trained and experience marriage / couple therapist.
How Do Babies & Children Affect Relationships?
Research has shown a significant decline in the level of positive sentiment between couples after the birth of their first child. According to the Gottman Institute, about 67% of couples report not being as happy as they were prior to the birth of their first child, which means that only 33% of couples get along well after what is supposed to be a momentous life transition. So, what goes wrong? The research highlights the lack of sleep couples experience around the birth of a child contributes significantly to increased irritability in either one or both of the partners resulting in more disagreement and higher levels of negative sentiment. When babies become children, parents are faced with a complete new set of challenges, particularly around discipline; one partner may believe that smacking is good for children..."It never did me any harm", whilst the other is appalled at the idea. One parent feels exhausted at having to care for the children 24/7, the other feels exhausted from having to work long hours, then come home to a house that demands more of his/her time and energy.
Common issues that bring couples to relationship counselling
- Bickering or intense arguing
- Parenting differences
- Alcohol or drug use
- Inlaw issues
- Mental health Issues
- Emotional distancing
- Sexual desire differences
- Financial difficulties
- Cultural differences
- Personality or characterological differences
When Should We Seek Help?
If you don't feel good about the way you & your partner deal with conflict and that the level of negative sentiment within your relationship is slowly overtaking all the positive feelings you once had for each other, then the time to speak to a trained couple & family therapist is now. Here are a couple of statistics worth remembering: (1) more than 54% of couples who divorce do so after seven years of marriage, and (2): on average, couples wait six years from the first signs of problems before they seek help. By then, for many couples, it's too late. The time to act is now, so don't hesitate, give us a call and maybe we can help you turn things around.
Quotes About Relationships
- "Strife is better than loneliness" (Irish Proverb)
- "We live in the shelter of each other" (Celtic Saying)
- "We are never so vulnerable as when we love" (Sigmonf Freud)
- "A person's heart withers if it does not answer another heart" (Pear S. Buck)
- "Attachment interruptions are dangerous.....like a scratched cornea, relationship ruptures deliver agony". (Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini & Richard Lannon)
- "Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other, exceeds your need for each other", ( Insight from the Dalai Lama)
Comical Quotes About Relationships
- "Every woman is wrong until she cries, and then right instantly" (Thomas C. Hailburton)
- "Women mary men hoping they will change; men marry women hoping they will not. So each is inevitably disappointed", (Albert Einstein).
- "Women always worry about the things that men forget. Men always worry about things that women remember", (Unknown).
- "When a husband brings his wife flowers for no reason, there's a reason", (Molly McGee).
- "They keep saying that the right person will come along, I think mine got hit by a bus, (Unknown).