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Avoiding the Four Big Risks of
Relationship Breakup

Big Risks of Relationship Breakup

By Ken Howard

As a psychotherapist for over 28 years, I've worked with so many different kinds of couples, both gay and straight, and many ages, nationalities, ethnicities, and backgrounds. You could say I've made a study of it, and I teach a course on Couples Therapy with the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social at USC (University of Southern California) for their graduate MSW (Master of Social Work) students. In that course, we study various evidence-based practice models for couples (those are the techniques shown through formal research to have positive outcomes for the clients), and one of the several is The Gottman Method, pioneered by husband-and-wife mental health professionals and researchers, John Gottman, Ph.D., and Julie Gottman, Ph.D, (as summarized in The Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy, by A. Gurman).

Dr. John Gottman has taught a now-classic structure for understanding what drives relationships, in terms of what makes them thrive, but also what undermines them, and sets them on a course for divorce in marriages or breakups in other kinds of relationships. He calls them “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, a Biblical reference from his perspective as a conservative Orthodox Jew, mixed with his standing as one of the foremost researchers on couples from his headquarters of “The Love Lab” in Seattle, Washington, and his appointment with the University of Washington.

Gottman describes the dreaded “four horsemen” that threaten relationships as 1) Defensiveness; 2) Criticism; 3) Stonewalling; and 4) Contempt. If any one of these is present in your relationship out of proportion to more positive traits, such as sharing life dreams together, your relationship could be on a collision course for ending.

Let’s look at each of these, in turn, and discuss some alternatives to improve your relationship instead:

1. Defensiveness

In an argument, you’re not on trial. Discussing a problem or impasse in your house is not a formal legal proceeding, and it’s not about “proving” to some invisible judge that you’re right and your partner is wrong. Responses to your partner’s statements that begin with a contradiction, such as, “No I don’t! I don’t do that at all! That’s crazy! If I do that, it’s only because you made me that way!” are not going to get you anywhere. Being invested in invalidating your partner’s statements, even if you disagree, instead of hearing them out (again, even if you disagree) is dangerous to relationship health.

What’s the alternative?
Welcome their feedback. Let them say their piece, get it off their chest. See if you can find any part of what they are saying that you agree with. Even if you want to rush to defend yourself, do the opposite: attempt to meet them in a place of collaborative discussion and healing. Try to “repair” (as Gottman says) the breach of agreement you currently have. Say things like,”Tell me more about this. Why do you feel this way?”. Ask for clarification: “When you say that I do this, do you mean all the time, or certain important occasional times?”. See if you can “play therapist” with them: “Tell me how you felt when I did that. Why was that important to you to talk to me about?” Try to validate what they are saying, just so you hear their side in detail. “Tell me why this is so important to you. You seem upset. What about this is upsetting you?” Rather than engage in defensiveness, try to focus on exploration of your partner’s feelings to understand them in greater depth.

2. Criticism

Gottman teaches that criticism gets you nowhere. “You’re such a selfish lout!” or “You wouldn’t know hard work if it bit you on the butt!” Or any harsh, broad, blanket, aggressive statement that makes a negative declaration of the other person, particularly if it’s global: “You never do anything around this house! You’re such a lazy sack!”

What’s the alternative?
Gottman would say start with an “I” statement. “I’ve been very tired lately with work and the kids, and I’d really like us to talk about finding a way that we can share the household chores here more equitably.” Or, “When you speak to me like that, I feel demoralized and I feel that I don’t want to be around you. I’d like to talk about how we’re both communicating, and see if we can do it differently.” Think of a finger you’re pointing at them, and then point it back to yourself, and describe what YOU are, and what you feel, not what they “are”. Add in conditional phrases: “There are times when I think you drink too much at parties, and you don’t realize how loud you’re being. I feel embarrassed when you talk too loud in front of all our friends, or when the alcohol makes you get too frank with others in what you say. I’m wondering if we could talk about that, and try to find some ways to avoid that next time.”

3. Stonewalling

This is not about the famous “Stonewall Uprising” in 1969 that was an act of liberation and a seminal moment for LGBT rights in history.That was great; this kind of “stonewalling” is bad. It’s about “putting up a stone wall” between you and your partner, and it leaves them as if they are talking to a wall rather than to a person. A person’s voice (namely your partner) can’t get through a stone wall. Stonewalling someone is when you’re walking away from productive communication, and you’re sending a devaluing message that what they have to say, whatever it is, is of absolutely no important to you, and you’re not willing to even hear it, let alone negotiate about it. Gottman would imply that if you do this often enough, the relationship will end, because most partners either can’t or won’t take that kind of dismissive, devaluing, condescending treatment from their (supposed) loved one. This is the equivalent to when nations break down diplomatic relations and simply go to war. Gottman discusses how dysfunction in a relationship involves “turning away”, like someone (emotionally) turning their back on you, instead of “turning toward” your partner in an effort to engage, build on positive feelings, and work through the issues of disagreement.

What’s the alternative?
Gottman would say look for opportunities to make “repairs.” Is there any part of what your partner is complaining about that you can agree with? Can you acknowledge that the issue they raise is at least important to them, even if it’s not particularly important to you? Can you acknowledge how they might be feeling, even if they are “getting the facts wrong” at first? Can you maybe take only a brief break in the proceedings, but return promptly to productive discussions, and creatively problem-solve with your partner together? The opposite of stonewalling is an even exchange of talking and listening, and that talking/listening process is like a path that couples take toward creative solutions to disagreements.

4. Contempt

This is one that I find, over my many years in practice, to be the most destructive, and it’s a hallmark of a couple that probably will break up shortly after I witness it happening, which is sobering and sad.It’s a complete invalidation of what your partner is saying, or feeling. Often spoken with a sneer, or a sarcastic soon, or a grumbly “harumph” underneath it, we all know when we’re being talked to with contempt. If you’ve seen the classic film, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, or seen the Edward Albee play, much of Elizabeth Taylor’s character of Martha does this. It is of a caustic nature that erodes love in a relationship, and at its worst, is the way that people fall out of love and just want to leave the partner and the relationship for good.

What’s the alternative?
I believe, though some may disagree, that contempt comes a very deep hurt. It comes from someone who is embittered by not having their needs met, or being chronically mistreated, or being chronically frustrated that what is most important to them is always somehow denied them. I think one way to respond to it is to bring a lot of compassion to the person being that way, being careful not to sound patronizing or condescending, but to see the person acting like that as a wounded child. Saying something like, “I can really hear in what you’re saying that this means a lot to you,” will sometimes make that person go from being contemptuous to possibly crying or getting in touch with their sadness. Asking simply, “What would help?” might help them to re-focus on expressing their feelings a different way. Asking, “What needs aren’t being met for you” is also a way for them to shift from bitter complaint to focusing on creative, positive solutions moving forward.

There are many more topics in couples therapy interventions that can work. Many theorists are said to match, or even exceed, the theory/practice and contributions by the Gottmans (particularly for consensual non-monogamy or poly relationships), but their research gives us some excellent insights into what works over the long term to keep relationships both healthy and happy, and, also importantly, what threatens them at their foundation. And there is much more than the “four horsemen” to their work.

But if you can start by reflecting on your own relationship, and reflecting on which of these indicators you might be guilty of yourself, in your own recent behavior, it’s a start toward gaining the insight you might need to start a troubled relationship back on the road to relief and repair.

Ken Howard, MSW, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in California, with an office in Los Angeles, providing individual, couples, and sex therapy in his office, and also offers relationship coaching online to couples all over the United States, and the world. He is also an author, speaker, expert witness, novelist, and motorcyclist. He is the founder of, and is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Southern California. He has been with his husband for 18 years and married 12, and lives in West Hollywood, California.

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