The most renown researcher in couples therapy, John Gottman, Ph.D., identified four communication breakdowns and predictors of relationship failure (if allowed to run amuck). These are the four habits that I teach my clients how to identify and avoid. The tricky part is that they are very easy habits to fall into, and typically happen as a natural response to a perceived threat.
Do you ever find yourself saying, “Most of the time, what starts the fight is basically nothing! Sometimes we even forget what we were fighting about.”
This is because the severity of the fight is more related HOW things are presented rather than the content. Gottman figured out that good conflict management is a cornerstone to a long-lasting relationship. What derails good conflict management is what he calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Today, I will discuss the first horseman; CRITICISM.
When we feel threatened by our parter, we get flooded with emotions, our heart rate increases, and we tend to go into fight or flight mode. In these moments, it is very hard to be vulnerable and tell the partner that we are hurt. It feels much safer to blame the feelings on the other person's behavior or attributes. Typically, we prefer to express hurt through anger because that is less vulnerable than admitting being hurt.
When we use criticism to express our hurt, we almost always throw our partner into a defensive mindset (which also derails conflict management). Instead of slinging criticism, it is recommended to express what is going on with you, emotionally, or factually, using “I” statements. Next, it is more helpful to express what you need, identifying something positive your partner can do, rather than telling them what to stop doing. Saying to somebody, “I need a hug” is received much better than, “You're never supportive!”
Regulating and owning our own emotions is challenging yet it is a skill that can be developed over time. It may be helpful to use a line I pulled from A Course in Miracles: “I am not upset for the reason I think.” We are generally not upset about the content, but are afraid of the temporary belief that we are unlovable.
What is A Course in Miracles?
Many couples come to therapy struggling to agree on how to share the load of housekeeping. Family background, personality, and other factors come into play in how one tends to contribute to the household duties. It can feel pretty bad when a significant other comes to us with a complaint about a way that we might have done things for many years before the relationship. A war of philosophy might then ensue, with circular debate, keeping anything from getting done, at least without a lot of tension.
Each person in the relationship brings things they like doing and are probably pretty good at. Each person also comes with things they strongly dislike which sap their energy quickly. While a perfect balance is not possible, it is possible to significantly reduce tension by focusing on each other's strengths.
For example, let us say that one partner does not mind, and in fact may like (although they are careful not to admit it) doing laundry and absolutely hates cleaning the cat litter. This person may be willing to do 75% of the laundry if they don't have to clean the cat litter very often. Many people in relationships say to me that they don't want to be left feeling solely responsible for something, however. They like to know that the other person cares and is willing to at least chip in. That is why I came up with the 75/25 rule.
The idea is to find the strengths in each parter, which are likely the things they don't mind or may even like doing. Agree that each partner will take 75% of the load of their strong activities, while both agreeing not to neglect any task completely, and filling in as needed. The other idea here is that for the person who hates cleaning the cat litter, this activity will sap their energy the same as if the other person were doing it 75% of the time. So when we allow for specialization, it allows more to get done with more smiles.
The other thing is to remember to respect the other person because there is no “correct” way to run a household. You are allies and not adversaries in the art of running the home. Some days you will be very good at keeping up, and others, you might let things go so that you may enjoy some quality time together. The trick is to tell the other person how something makes you feel, rather than why it is wrong. Mutual respect of each other's unique points of view tends to keep defenses from derailing a simple logistical agreement.