I decided to search for the top Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists to see if I could get a broader, more well-rounded, perspective of my new field.  I wanted to make myself knowledgeable of the giants in my new area of study, and enhance my journey by learning about them and their specific focus areas.  Turns out, I’ve been reading many of their books for the past several years!

I took some time while out walking today to listen to a lecture by Dr. John Gottman.  I had read two of his books years ago and found them as intriguing as they were useful.  Gottman created the Love Lab, which essentially was a bed and breakfast for couples that monitored them via video cameras, blood and urine testing, and heart-rate.  After monitoring thousands of couples, he began to be able to predict a couple’s success with 90% accuracy.

After reading, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” and “10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage,” I thought I might share a few of his groundbreaking insights as I also attempt to utilize them in my everyday life.  The techniques he shares would benefit any relationship, but they are geared toward intimate relationships.  I found them logical, concise, and requiring genuine self-reflection.  You all know how much I love that!  I want to specifically focus on what Gottman calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  These four behaviors are what he suggests are “the downward spiral that lead couples to divorce.”

First is criticism.  Gottman explains that a complaint is different than a criticism.  A complaint is an expression about yourself; how you feel, and what you need.  However, a criticism makes it directly about the partner.  A criticism is intended to make the partner feel inadequate, defective, or like they have a character default that is causing the problem.  “Criticism frequently begins with “you always” or “you never.”  A great example he gave was:

Complaint: “You talked about yourself all through dinner, and that hurt my feelings.  I really needed you to ask me about my day.”

Criticism: “You talked about yourself all through dinner, and you never asked me anything about my day.  What is wrong with you?”

Second is defensiveness.  He states there are two ways of becoming defensive.  The first is righteous indignation; meeting a complaint with a counter-complaint.  The second way is acting like an innocent victim by whining.  He suggests the more effective alternative is to accept responsibility, if even for a small part of the problem.

The third predictor is contempt or disrespect.  “This is criticism bolstered by hostility or disgust.  Think of somebody rolling their eyes while you’re trying to tell them something important about yourself.  Contempt often involves sarcasm, mocking, name-calling, or belligerence.”  This is the single best predictor of divorce.  “The counter to contempt is respect, or appreciation.  They are saying thank you for very small things that their partners are doing.”  He suggests building this in by creating a new habit of mind.  “Instead of scanning the environment for things to criticize, and put down, and make yourself superior, you scan for things you can praise and appreciate.

Respect:  “Thank you for doing the dishes.”  “I watched you playing with the baby the other night and it was really beautiful.”  “You showed a lot of guts in that hard situation.”

Contempt:  “What a jerk!  You only talk about yourself!”

The fourth is stonewalling.  “This happens when listeners withdraw from the conversation, offering no physical or verbal cues that they’re affected by what they hear.  Interacting with somebody who does this is “like taking to a stone wall.”  It’s “emotional withdrawal from conflict.”  This often makes the speaker raise the stakes and take things to the next level to have an impact.

In his books, he beautifully defines a “Love Map,” and what it means to build on yours within your relationship.  “Emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world…They know each other’s goals in life, each other’s worries, each other’s hopes… These couples have made plenty of cognitive space for their marriage.”  The Love Map is intended to help get you through some of these Four Horsemen until the behavior is shifted, but beyond that, it is what keeps each partner engaged and invested in the relationship.  He offers many ways to enhance the Love Map, and tools for growing it.  I found them to be wonderful resources.

May we all have the courage to hold ourselves accountable for our actions within our relationship, so that we may share what it is that we have always desired to.  We all want healthy partnerships, but that can often mean doing the work within ourselves to ensure we are able to offer that in return.

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