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?