Last time I summarized some of the ground-breaking research of psychologist John Gottman into what makes relationships work or fail. To recapitulate, he identified four patterns which, if unchecked, are so lethal to a relationship that he termed them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Most couple counselors assume that when couples are caught in these patterns, they need to learn better ways to fight fairly and negotiate their differences. But Gottman found that this isn’t correct. He found that most ongoing arguments in relationships (69 percent, to be exact) are never resolved. That’s because most of these disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences in values, lifestyle, or personality. In all partnerships there are some basic differences, but when a couple constantly fights over them in the vain hope of “winning” all they succeed in doing is creating more distance.
The key to successful relationships, Gottman found, isn’t how the couple handles disagreements, but how they are with each other when they aren’t fighting. When a couple is spiraling into warfare, the way out is to stop focusing so much on the differences and work more on enhancing the strengths in their relationship. One of the most direct ways of doing this is to make sure you’re continually learning more about your partner. In successful relationships, each partner makes plenty of cognitive room for the relationship by remembering the other’s history, his or her preferences, ideas, opinions, emotional rhythms, vulnerabilities, etc. – and constantly updating this understanding as the partner grows and changes. The easiest way to prevent a relationship from going stale is to work daily at being curious about what your partner is doing, feeling, and thinking.
The most deadly of the four horsemen is contempt, and the most effective way to prevent it from poisoning your relationship is to work daily at nurturing your fondness and admiration for one another. Fondness and admiration are the two most crucial elements in any rewarding and long-lasting romance. Without the fundamental belief that your partner is worthy of honor and respect, no basis for a satisfying relationship exists. Focusing on fondness and admiration for your partner is an immediate antidote to contempt, because contempt and admiration can’t both occupy your mind at the same time.
Another simple strategy is to remember to turn toward each other instead of away from one another. Do you talk over dinner or eat in silence while watching television? Do you have little telephone chats during the day, and spend time talking about each other’s day in the evening? These little events do more to keep a relationship vital than any number of candlelight dinners or romantic vacations. When you turn toward one another in small ways every day, you create an emotional bank account for the relationship which will protect it in times of stress.
One of the most concrete ways to demonstrate your fondness and admiration is to let your partner influence you. When she or he disagrees with you, does things in a different way from you, or gives you advice and suggestions, do you respond as if your personal power and autonomy are being threatened? Do you resort to criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling to drown your partner out and obliterate his or her point of view? Or do you listen, discuss and consider what you’re hearing? (Note to male couples: the research shows that men are far more prone to turn disagreements into power struggles than women.)
When you allow your partner to influence you, you also create something else that is crucial in any successful relationship – a sense of shared meaning and purpose. While you can’t force yourselves to agree about all the fundamentals in life, you’re far more likely to achieve some meeting of the minds on these issues if you’re open to each other’s perspectives. When you create an atmosphere in which each partner feels that their fundamental dreams and values are respected, you’re more likely to arrive at a sense of shared meaning of the purpose of your relationship, and more likely to experience each other as allies in the fulfillment of your deepest desires, rather than as adversaries who stand in each other’s way. Next: Handling Conflicts Skillfully