While we would all like to believe in fairytale love and happily ever afters, the reality is a grown up relationship takes a lot of hard work and commitment
Dealing with the day to day stresses of life, particularly with kids, can put a lot of pressure on couples and unhealthy habits can quickly manifest.
While Cinderella and Prince Charming probably never fought about who didn’t take the bin out or who’s turn it is to take Bobby to soccer training, these little things can chip away at the relationships of us mere mortals.
Respected relationship expert John Gottman, from the Gottman Institute, says conflict is inevitable in all relationships, but the secret to success is in the way we manage it. He has come up with four negative behaviours that most commonly impact relationships.
Dubbed the “Four Horsemen”, it is helpful to know these behaviours so you can identify and address them if they arise in your relationship:
Possibly the most common negative behaviour to threaten relationships, criticism is different from voicing a complaint. Gottman explains that rather than addressing a particular issue, criticism attacks your partner’s character. For example, rather than complaining they didn’t take the bin out, a criticising partner may start with, “You are so lazy…”
Gottman’s theory of the Four Horsemen places criticism as the first Horseman, as how you address this issue can either lead to, or hold off, the other 3 negative behaviours.
The key to avoid it criticism in your relationship according to Gottman is to ‘complain without blame’. You can read more about criticism in relationships and how to avoid it here.
Leading on from criticism is defensiveness. People feel this way when they feel they are being attack or accused of something. Defensive partners usually turn the blame back on the other person which often leads to a vicious circle.
Taking responsibility for your part in any conflict, issues or unmet expectations is an important part of combating defensive behaviour. Read more here about how to prevent defensiveness leading to other negative behaviours.
Gottman believes contempt in a relationship to be one of the biggest predicting factors of divorce.
When we treat a partner with contempt, we are essentially saying “I am better than you.” Contemptuous behaviours may include name calling, eye-rolling, sarcasm or other hostile (mean) actions.
Contempt is particularly toxic in a relationship and can be psychologically damaging to the party on the receiving end. In fact, it is the very opposite of what a relationship should be – safe, caring and supportive.
Find out more about contempt and ways to ensure it stays out of your relationship here.
Often a sign of overwhelm, stonewalling is a way of withdrawing or shutting yourself off from interaction. Signs of stonewalling include being unresponsive or acting busy to avoid engaging. Stonewalling can be frustrating for both parties involved and lead to further conflict and tension. It can also easily become a pattern in a relationship – to great detriment.
Interestingly, men are more likely to engage in stonewalling than women. Gottman offers some good tips on how to stop stonewalling, both for the person doing it and the person on the receiving end, here.
Conflict in a relationship is normal and, in healthy relationships, can be dealt with constructively. However, if you recognise any of these four negative behaviours in your relationship it might be time to take stock and see if you can find more positive ways to address issues.
You will both be happier for it.