June 19, 2014
I’ve noticed that many of my friends and I have been enjoying the New Year’s habit of cleaning out. It seems like such a great time to do this, after putting away all the holiday decorations and returning the house to its non-holiday condition. You have to find room for new gifts anyway, so you might as well get in there and clean out. My husband and I have tackled a few closets, and I have also done the junk drawer in the kitchen, (does everybody have this drawer?) the spice rack, my sock drawer, and my make-up case. It’s so satisfying. Simplicity, clarity, order. Ahhhh….
Why not take the same approach with our primary relationships? Clean out, straighten up, get rid of the old, make room for what’s new. Having led a couple’s workshop the last two weeks, I’ve been reminded how important a little cleaning out can be for a relationship.
John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, as well as one of the lead researcher at the famous “Love Lab” in Seattle, Washington shares what he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These four things in a relationship inevitably lead to its demise. They are contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Each of these concepts is self-explanatory, but I’ll add a few words about them.
Contempt is that feeling of disgust and a “better than” attitude. It is judgmental and shaming and usually feels very dark and toxic. If you are feeling any contempt, either towards your partner or coming from your partner, get help immediately. According to the research, this feeling and the subsequent behavior is a sure way to end your relationship.
Criticism is judgment of a person’s character. Rather than saying, “I wish you wouldn’t talk over me when I am having a conversation,” a person says,” You can never keep your mouth shut. You’ve always got to have the last word.” The first is a complaint which means it is focused on the behavior. The second is criticism which focuses on the character of the person. Work on using complaints and avoiding criticism.
Defensiveness is just what is sounds like, not listening because you are too busy defending your position. A defensive person has all the reasons and excuses why they shouldn’t be responsible or even accountable for their behavior. They defend against any and all complaints and this makes solving problems and moving forward almost impossible. If you know you are a defender, try listening. It’s that easy. Listen to your partner. Make sure you have really heard what they are saying. You may find out you have nothing to defend. If you find your mind racing while listening, ask for a timeout and take responsibility for coming back to the conversation when you have calmed down.
Stonewalling is truly a power play. When a person stonewalls, they either totally shut down and refuse to communicate or they walk away and become unavailable. By saying “No!” with their stonewalling, they wield all the power at that moment in the relationship. Stonewalling is as deadly as contempt. It’s almost impossible to be in a healthy relationship with someone who stonewalls until the behavior is changed.
Take a few minutes and look at your primary relationships. Consider these Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. If you see yourself in any of these descriptions, clean these behaviors right out of your relationship! It’s a new year and a good time to tidy up. Get help if you need it.
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