It’s hard to be married or in a committed relationship. How hard? The numbers vary somewhat depending on which study you read, but it’s estimated that anywhere from 40% to 50% of first marriages end in divorce. The odds of a successful relationship get slimmer with each go round – roughly two out of three second marriages end in divorce and three out of four third marriages fail.
That’s a lot of heartache and tumult. How and why does this happen?
Marital researcher John Gottman has discovered four factors (he calls them “The Four Horsemen”) that predict with 95% certainty that a relationship is destined to fall apart within 5 years:
Criticism – A criticism is more than a complaint. It is something directed at a partner’s character or personality. “Why did you forget to call?” is a complaint. “Why did you forget to call? You really don’t think of anyone but yourself, do you?” is a criticism.
Contempt – Contempt often has its roots in longstanding unresolved differences. This is when you are out and out disdainful of your partner or what s/he says. It can be something you think or say, a tone of voice, a roll of the eyes, or mockery. Saying “You really don’t think of anyone but yourself, do you?” while using a sneering tone and feeling something akin to bitterness or hate is an example of contempt.
Defensiveness – Defensiveness is often used as a natural reaction to contempt as a way to explain or protect yourself – e.g., “Like you remember to call me all the time?” The problem is that rather than protecting or explaining where you are coming from, defensiveness has the effect of coming across as accusatory, which only causes the situation to escalate.
Stonewalling – When one or the both of you shut down or check out emotionally, you begin to stonewall. You may ignore one another, make only a half-hearted attempt to listen to the other person, or lose yourself in a hobby or with the kids as a way to escape.
Questions to Ponder
Do you use any of the horsemen in your relationship?
If so, which ones?
How do you end up feeling about your partner when you use them?
What to Do:
Keep in mind that the four horsemen are usually the end result of months or years of a downward spiral. But how does that happen?
Gottman has found that couples typically have two types of problems: concrete and perpetual. Concrete problems are about things like who takes out the trash, does the dishes, drives the kids to school, etc…
Concrete problems can sometimes turn into endless power struggles, not because of the task itself but because of what it represents to your sense of identity. In part, this is what Gottman refers to as perpetual problems, or, as I prefer to think of them, perceptual problems.
Perpetual/Perceptual problems are the price of admission for being in a relationship. They don’t go away, because they are rooted in both of your identities. Each of you has your own set of values and expectations of life and when you enter a relationship some of these are of course going to be challenged.
If you become involved with one person, you will develop a certain set of problems. Guess what happens when you get involved with someone else? You’re right: a new set of perpetual problems!
Fights about Perpetual/perceptual problems often take on a repetitive pattern in which both partners are so busy trying to make their point that neither is listening to the other. The end result is neither feels valued or heard. This is where the four horsemen kick in; who isn’t going be feel critical, contemptuous, defensive and want to stonewall someone who makes them feel threatened and uncared for?
You can begin to change perpetual/perceptual problems by talking with your partner about what the significance of a certain issue represents to him or her. Your main job is to simply ask questions and listen. Make a sincere effort to really understand what your partner is feeling. Don’t get caught up in making your point. The irony is that the more you listen the more likely your partner is to be open to listening to and working with you. People like to listen and respect those who do the same for them. People break up with someone who they feel doesn’t listen or respect them.
Sometimes the hurts have built up so strongly over the years that its almost impossible to really slow down and listen to one another without it starting another argument. When this happens talking to a professional counselor can help you to break out of the cycle and learn to listen, respect and love one another again.