It is almost impossible to talk about couples therapy without talking about the work of Drs. Julie and John Gottman. They have been been studying successful (and unsuccessful) relationships for the past 40 years and are able to predict if a couple will stay together with over 90% accuracy.
I have recommended Gottman's book, "The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work" to a few of my couple clients in order to provide a common language to discuss events. A second outcome I am hoping for when I recommend this book is that the clients will improve their ability to notice when the problem that brought them to my office is present. For example, if the couple is experiencing Negativity, Resentment, Mistrust, Disrespect, or other problems, this book helps the couple identify what the problem could be doing to gain control.
I also encourage that people read this book (and any book about mental health and relationships) with some criticism. Yes, the Gottmans are excellent researchers and have greatly contributed to the field of relationship therapy. Yes, the book can be very helpful and provide excellent activities to complete with your partner. However, the Gottmans' work does not take gender socialization, multicultural influences, race, religion, sexual orientation, or power differentials into consideration, all of which greatly influence relationships. It seems the Gottman organization has gotten better at being more diverse in recent years; however the Seven Principles book is fairly homogeneous. This is not to say that the book is not helpful (obviously I wouldn't recommend it to couples if it wasn't) but make sure to read with and against the grain, so to speak.
What Have We Learned from the Gottmans' Research?
One of the most helpful insights from Gottman's research is what they refer to as the Four Hoursemen of the Apocalypse.
Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling make up the Four Horsemen. We have all experienced these at some point in our lives, and we have all done them at some point as well. I tend to be pretty sarcastic when I am upset, a characteristic of Contempt, one of the most damaging Horsemen. This is an important vocabulary list for couples therapy, as one or more of these Horsemen like to sneak into the therapy room when discussing a recent instance of conflict. I frequently ask my clients to keep on the lookout for tactics of the problem they are experiencing, and I have yet to see a problem NOT use one of these Horsemen to pit partners against each other.
This video provides great examples of what each of the Four Horsemen looks like in a relationship:
While the antidotes provided here seem easy now, when you and your partner are in an argument and your body becomes flooded (yet another great vocabulary word from the Gottmans'), it is SUPER difficult to identify the correct Horseman, remember the prescribed antidote, AND turn that thought into an action. This is where your therapist can help you and your partner practice strategies to keep you from experiencing any of the Horsemen in the first place and get better at responding in the rare occasions you experience them in the future.
So What Do I Do If The Four Horsemen Show Up?
With practice, and the help of a relationship therapist, we can learn to keep the Horsemen from showing up at all. In the meantime, here are some tips for kicking them out the door during an argument.
Step 1: Practice noticing when one of the Horsemen ARRIVES. Noticing when a Horseman has taken control is a good first step; however the key to kicking it out is noticing the first sign it has arrived. Negativity, Resentment, Mistrust, Disrespect, and other problems that use the Four Horsemen don't like it when we know what's going on, so couples need to practice noticing these tactics early on in the argument. Practice noticing the first eye-roll, the first sarcastic statement, the first insult.
Step 2: Take a 20 minute break. This time may lessen over time, or you or your partner may need more than 20 minutes; however this is a great starting point. Go to separate rooms if possible and do what you need to do to calm your body and mind. I like to rinse cold water on my face or listen to music.
Step 3: Once BOTH partners have had enough time to calm body and mind, try using some of these prepared statements to discuss the topic of the argument.
Step 4: Continue to keep track of the Four Horsemen. Just because you took a 20 minute break and used the prepared statments above doesn't mean one of them won't come back. With practice, arguments will become shorter and less frequent, and the Horsemen will know not to bother showing up in the first place. If they continue to persist, let your therapist know and you can concentrate on different strategies in session.
If you have questions contact Lindsey at Lindsey.Boes@gmail.com or call at 720-507-4234.
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The posts provided here are intended to provide psychoeducation, resources, and support for current clients, potential clients, or anyone seeking information about mental health. These posts are not a suitable replacement for mental health services including medication, therapy, counseling, or crisis managment. If you are seeking help for any mental health or relationship struggle, please contact a mental health professional you trust.