Four Horsemen and Michelangelo

Four Horsemen and Michelangelo

IMG_6974In this article, Heather Edwards sheds light on what makes relationships thrive – and what makes them destined for doom.  It was originally published on her blog, New York Psychotherapy and Life Coaching. She is a Psychotherapist and Life Coach, and the Blog Editor in Chief of Couplewise.


The problems are obvious.  What are the solutions?

Sometimes the key to discovering what works best in a relationship is evaluating and eliminating what we know doesn’t work.  We know there are a few scientifically proven actions that destroy relationships.  John Gottman calls these the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.  So let’s start there.

The first is Criticism.  Unless this is constructive with the intent of helping, it’s probably hurtful.  In destructive criticism, couples will attack each other’s personality or character in an effort to prove who is right and who is wrong.  It leaves both feeling angry and dissatisfied in the long and short run.  These statements tend to start with generalizations, and include absolute words like “always” and “never”.

The second is Contempt.  In this communication style one partner will attack the other’s sense of self using name-calling, mockery, hostility, and negative or aggressive body language and tone of voice.  It’s intent is to demean and disempower the other person’s position and character. There are no happy endings when contempt enters the room.

The third is Defensiveness.  When one partner feels like a victim, he/she might deny or make excuses for their behavior. They may cross-complain by lodging one of their own complaints in retaliation, or “Yes, but!” the original complaint in refusal of responsibility.  It is a very closed, blaming, and judgemental way of approaching conflicts. And it doesn’t work.

The fourth is Stonewalling.  When one partner stonewalls, he/she has shut down the conversation. The relationship store is closed for business.  There is a stony silence, avoidance, and a withdrawal from communication.  There may be a belief that the avoidance prevents a bigger blow up, but what it really conveys is icy distance, disconnection and smugness.  It actually worsens the problem and sabotages the chance of resolution.

What we know about happy couples:

Happy couples have 5 positive interactions to every negative one.  Gottman calls this the “Five to One Ratio”. Positive interactions are cultivated everyday in successful marriages.  A few examples of easy ways to do this are giving a compliment, showing your appreciation for something big or small, reliving a fun memory, or doing something nice for the other person. The key to the most successful relationships is spending time being together and talking together.  Share your ideas, experiences, and dreams with each other.

More sex = more joy.   In a recent study it was determined that people are 55% more likely to report higher levels of happiness when they have sex two to three times per week.  Having sex at least one time per week makes people 44% more likely to report happiness.  The happiest couples have sex at least 2 to 3 times per month.  The hormones released during sex create stronger bonds, warm fuzzy feelings, and a sense of relaxed satisfaction.  What are you waiting for?  Make sex a priority in your busy life.

Strong relationships have the Michelangelo Effect.  This means that one partner brings out the best in the other.  It creates a sense of esteem and personal satisfaction in actualizing the ideal self. They also share new experiences, celebrate good news, and laugh together.   So go for an evening walk, try a new restaurant, explore new places, relive a funny moment, and show enthusiasm for the other person’s accomplishments.

When in disagreement, the happy couple’s arguing style is open, considerate, and empathic.  It includes active listening, humor, and affection.  They even conceding on certain points their partner makes. After all, one person can’t be right all the time!  Plus, very few things in life occur “always” or “never”.  Except, of course, sunsets and taxes.

Now you have an idea of what empowers relationships, and what destroys them.  You may have recognized some of these positive and negative qualities in yours.  Remember that it’s never too late to make things better.  If you and your partner are invested in enjoying a happy life together, then start employing some of the tips here – and recognize and change the negative ones when they surface.

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