In 1994, Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman developed the Sound Relationship House (SRH) theory and interventions based on John Gottman’s research. They designed Interventions to help couples strengthen their relationships in three primary areas: conflict management, friendship, and creation of shared meaning.
All relationships, even the most successful ones, have conflict. Conflict is natural and has functional aspects that provide opportunities for growth. Research shows that it is not the appearance of conflict, but rather how it is managed that predicts the success or failure of a relationship.
Dr. John Gottman and Dr. R.W. Levenson researched on what is seen in a relationship that is going well in the area of conflict management. In longitudinal research that spanned 20 years, they concluded the following, “69% of problems are perpetual and not completely resolvable for couples due to personality differences.” These on-going problems need continuing dialogue that centers around acceptance of each other.
Dr. Gottman researched the question “What makes for a satisfying marriage?” He found that not all negatives are alike. Four of conflict resolution styles stood out as being the most destructive and biggest predictors of divorce and separation. Gottman called these, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, namely Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and stonewalling. While most relationships will have some of these, healthy relationships don’t use them nearly as often and do more to repair them when they are used.
The Four Horsemen
The Four Horsemen in the New Testament, namely conquest, war, hunger, and death depicts the end of the world. Similarly the metaphor ‘Four
Horsemen’ is used to describe the communication styles that depict
the end of a relationship.
Criticism: The first horseman is criticism. Criticizing is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an attack on the personality and is done using blaming, character-attack and over-generalized statements like ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘should’ etc.
Contempt: The second horseman is contempt. While criticism attacks the partner’s character, contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over the other. The target of contempt is made to feel inferior and worthless using mockery, sarcasm, and insults in verbal and non-verbal modes. Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts and researched to be the greatest predictor of divorce.
Defensiveness: The third horseman is defensiveness, and it is typically a response to criticism. Defensiveness is self-protection by warding off a perceived attack and happens through counter-attacks, playing innocent-victim, giving excuses, etc. It will not allow for healthy conflict management as it maintains a state of conflict.
Stonewalling: The fourth horseman is stonewalling, which is usually a response to contempt. Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction and tunes out to their partner. Rather than confront the issue, it involves evasiveness, acting busy, or engaging in distractions.
The first step in effectively managing conflict is to identify and counteract The Four Horsemen when they arrive in the conflict discussions. And their antidotes were identified by the Gottmans as gentle start-up, accepting responsibility, expressing feelings and needs and, self-soothing. If not couples risk problems in the future of the relationship, propelling it towards divorce or worse, emotional disengagement. To achieve this goal, love is not enough and insights are insufficient. What is needed is skill-building in the couples so that they can translate the desired ideals of conflict management into daily practices.
Gentle Start-up: The antidote for criticism is to voice the issue using gentle start-up. It involves talking about feelings using “I” statements and positively expressing specific needs, without any blaming.
Express Feelings & Needs: The antidote to contempt is to express feelings and assert needs as respectful requests, and enabling a culture of appreciation.
Accepting Responsibility: The antidote to defensiveness is accepting responsibility. By taking responsibility even for a part of the issue, couples prevent the conflict from escalating.
Self-Soothing: The antidote to stonewalling is to practice physiological self-soothing, and the first step of self-soothing is to stop the conflict discussion and call a timeout. If not a partner might either bottle up emotions or explode and neither of them helps in conflict resolution.
According to research by Dr. John Gottman, friendship is what makes the relationship stronger and vital. As with any friendship, it is a bond that must be nurtured with care. Allocating cognitive space to understand your partner’s likes and dislikes, showing interest and appreciation, building a positive outlook, being attentive to our partner’s needs and playing a team strengthen your marriage.
There should be an atmosphere that encourages a couple to talk honestly and nurture individual as well as relationship-driven dreams and aspirations. It includes spending quality time together regularly and getting to know each other better by sharing deeper hopes, values, thoughts, and feelings. This results in a happy and successful marriage in the long-term.
Gottman Research. (2019). The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/about/research accessed on 03.03.2019