If you asked me what one thing I would say to couples to help improve their relationships, I might say that they should stop treating each other like there’s something wrong with the other person.
I know… That sounds as deceptively and ridiculously simple as Bob Newhart’s sketch in which he tells a woman who’s describing an eating disorder that includes bingeing and purging to “Just stop it.” If only it were that easy. For couples, it may be the simplest thing in the world to stop making each other feel defective. But it’s far from easy to stop doing it.
John Gottman, who is an expert on relationship problems and has done a great deal of research on what successful and unsuccessful couples do when they talk to each other, identified a way of handling conflict that he described as an “attacking and defending” pattern. It’s pretty familiar behavior to most of us. Dogs do it, until they work out which one’s the top dog. Kids in the schoolyard do it, until they establish who’s the leader and who’s the follower. But what works with strangers can be destructive to an intimate relationship.
This pattern is associated with four types of behavior between partners: Criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. The first two are things we’re all guilty of, at times. But if they become habits, they can lead to the “harder stuff” – contempt, which means telling the other person that he or she is worthless, and stonewalling, which means cutting off all emotional expression and putting up a “wall” to block communication of any feelings -thus preventing the couple from expressing any support for each other. Gottman calls these four behaviors the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” because they correlated with increased likelihood of divorce among the couples he studied.
One thing that makes it hard to break patterns of criticism and defensiveness is that we often don’t intend to criticize, but the other person perceives criticism in the statement, or in their partner’s tone of voice, facial expression, or other behavior. Sometimes, the perception of critical intent has some basis in reality – it may be there but not acknowledged openly. But sometimes there’s some other negative emotion, and the intent to criticize is read into it based on past experience, negative expectations, or simply being under stress. In fact, misinterpreting frustration or anxiety for criticism is far more likely when one or both partners are under stress from parenting, work, physical ailments, or fatigue. Even worse is when one of the partners is actually being criticized in one of those other contexts, such as work or extended family.
As an example, a husband may report to his wife that he tried to talk to his divorced parents about putting aside their differences for the sake of peace at a family event, only to be told in no uncertain terms that he is wrong to attempt to force them to get along. Feeling helpless and frustrated about it, he brings up to his wife the fact that he thinks they need to put a stop to their toddler coming into their bedroom at night. His wife, already feeling anxious and a bit guilty about putting the child in day care at a young age because of her job, starts to say that it’s not going to work well to try to make this change in their rules about sleep right now. Her husband is really just trying to exert some influence in his own family (that he was unable to exert in his family of origin), and, not unreasonably, stick up for their right to have some undisturbed sleep time (and maybe some intimate time). But he perceives her negative reaction as just another example of someone trying to tell him he’s all wrong and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. So he says “fine, have it your way!” And cuts off communication.
If this husband and wife are able to catch themselves and figure out that their reactions are not really to each other but to stresses and frustrations they’re feeling from other situations, they can regroup, apologize, reach out to support each other, and problem-solve. There are some skills that will really help them do that, in my experience:
- Emotional self-awareness, or the ability to examine your own reaction and see where it might be coming from, especially in terms of owning anxiety, stress, discouragement, helplessness, and so on.
- Empathic listening, with the ability to understand and reflect back the other person’s feelings in a non-judgmental way.
- Understanding each other’s motivations – the “why” that helps explain the emotional reactions. In the example above, it would mean knowing that her husband is feeling frustrated and annoyed – and, further, that he wants to find an area in their lives in which he can feel less disempowered.
- The ability to communicate even when upset, to distinguish unpleasant emotions (like worry, frustration, and discouragement) from criticism, and to check things out before reacting (possibly mistakenly).
There are many other points that could be made about learning to avoid sending or receiving messages that are critical or defensive, but one way that I suggest couples begin is to make a point of always affirming each other and showing appreciation toward each other. That will at least slow down the chain reaction of perceived criticism and automatic defensiveness that often leads from a disagreement to an all-out “dirty fight.”
John Gottman has some suggested scripts for changing a judgmental-sounding response to a more empathetic response in his blog, here.