As someone who has long struggled with trying to be the “Valedictorian of Everything,” my ears pricked up when John Gottman was mentioned in one of my graduate counseling classes.
Gottman is famous for being able to predict with 98 percent accuracy—(98 percent! My birth control isn’t even that reliable!)—whether a couple will divorce or not.
In other words, he’s the Valedictorian of Couples’ Counseling.
I had to know more, not only because I wanted to be such a skilled clinician, but because I was curious whether my then relationship was doomed or not (it was, but that’s another story).
So, I dug into his research. And it turns out that after interviewing and following thousands of couples over many years, his results aren’t all that complicated (in theory).
He and his team discovered four conflict patterns that are strong predictors of the end of a relationship. “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” as they’re nicknamed include:
This is when a complaint is delivered as an attack. It makes someone right and someone wrong.
Why is this so bad?
One, it’s unproductive. And two, it adds fuel to the conflict fire. When we lead with what a lazy ass our partner is they’re likely to respond by pointing out what a lazy ass we are, which we’ll then criticize as being a total exaggeration and not at all right, which our partner will then criticize as… well, you get the point.
Using sentences that start with: “you always…,” “you never…,” “you’re a person who…,” “why are you so…” are signs this Horseman is present.
As a then “Valedictorian of Everything,” I was intimately familiar with the tactic. It was a favorite of mine, pointing out how wrong my partner was and how perfect I was. Score one for the Horsemen!
Using this tactic during disagreements is actually the strongest indicator of not only divorce, but of disease. It literally eats away at our partner and our relationship.
Contempt creates an air of superiority and undermines respect, a key factor in relationship success.
Insulting, name calling, mocking, sneering and eye rolling are all signs of contempt. And exactly what my boyfriend did when I started in with the criticism. Another point for the Horsemen!
This tactic prevents partners from working together. It places all the blame and responsibility on one party, creating a victim and perpetrator, which is not at all helpful when trying to hash out disagreements, because whether we want to admit it or not, it does in fact take two to tango.
Making excuses, cross-complaining (answering our partner’s complaint with a complaint), yes-butting, whining and repeating ourselves without listening to our partners are all tools of this Horseman.
And usually what I resorted to when the criticism escalated. Because clearly I was the victim, and if he just fixed his problems all would be well. Horseman: three. Sara: zero.
This is withdrawing from the relationship. Walking away, not responding, changing the subject and using the silent treatment are all in this Horseman’s arsenal.
While it may seem that we’re trying to be neutral when we use this tactic, the damage it inflicts is that of separation, disconnection, iciness and disapproval.
Which is what I felt when my boyfriend walked out and slammed the door, cutting off my criticism and defensiveness.
So, what was I do? We scored four out of four on the Apocalypse scale, so clearly the end was near.
Or was it?
According to Gottman there are also habits we can cultivate to keep the Horseman at bay.
They include: being gentle when bringing up issues, taking responsibility for our part in the argument, wanting to learn more about our partner’s complaint and participating in the conversation.
I was not particularly interested in doing any of these at the time, because I couldn’t bring myself to use the most important skill. The skill that sends the Horseman fleeing when they show up, as they are apt to do in all relationships at some point, and that’s repairing.
Repairing the relationship means saying, “I’m sorry. I screwed up. Let’s talk about it.” It creates openness, vulnerability and a common shared story. It means not being the “Valedictorian of Everything,” but being the “Valedictorian of I’m Imperfect Let’s Work on this Together.”
This is a lesson I’m still learning, and one my current partner often reminds me of while rolling his eyes.
Sara McKeown is just like every other yogi, except she hates coconut water. When she’s not perfecting her Downward Facing Dog or teaching other people how to perfect theirs, she can be found eating avocados, doodling in her journal, talking with her hands, microwaving her non-dairy ice cream, daydreaming about having Ira Glass’s babies, debating which book to stick her nose in or helping people live their best lives through her work as a counselor and wellness coach. Send her love notes at [email protected] or come along with her on her journey by checking out her blog, My Great Leap.
Editor: Brianna B.