Communication in romantic relationships
Romantic relationships are not easy to navigate. Every stage of a relationship comes with its challenges and difficulties. This complexity and nuance of relationships is the reason for the sea of information about how partners should (and should not) communicate in order to have a successful partnership. Not surprisingly, this is a topic that excites most people – after all, satisfying romantic relationships are key to a happy life. But how are we expected to know how to behave with our partner? Communicating effectively with your loved one is not a subject taught in school. Few are lucky enough to witness the healthy relationships in their home between their parents. Often our intuition and well-intentioned advice from loved ones are not the best guide to having a satisfying relationship. Very little of the available information has been scientifically validated through psychological research.
Why is it important to listen to the experts?
Social platforms provide an opportunity for anyone to express their opinion on a given topic. Often, content creators are not experts in the field they are talking about. A lot of the time what they share comes from personal experience and direct observations of the lives of their loved ones. This is called anecdotal evidence and means that a single case is used as an argument to support a broader claim. Diverse points of view are important, but when looking for advice on how to communicate with our partner, the most profitable move is to trust the experts in the field who use the scientific method to reach generalisations.
John Gottman is a prominent American psychologist and researcher known for his extensive work on marriage, relationships, and interpersonal communication. Gottman made significant contributions to the field of psychology, particularly in the study of marital stability and relationship dynamics. Much of his work focuses on the conditions that predict the successful development of a relationship and what are the signals that predict the end of romantic relationships.
Gottman identified four horsemen of the apocalypse in romantic relationships. The horsemen represent a metaphor for toxic communication styles between the two partners, which predict a breakup with over 90% accuracy. In this article, I will introduce you to the 4 behaviours you should avoid in your relationship and the most common reasons why they appear in the partnership.
Recognizing and making sense of destructive behaviours is an excellent first step, but this alone is not enough. Gottman also provides effective strategies against each of the Horsemen. The good news is that these negative patterns can be addressed and corrected. Here you will find the antidote for each of them.
Where does the metaphor of the four horsemen of the apocalypse come from?
The four horsemen of the apocalypse is a biblical metaphor that originates from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The four horsemen symbolise different aspects of apocalyptic events. They are usually interpreted as a symbol of conquest, war, famine and death – each horseman is associated with a different colour and brings a certain calamity to the world. In the realm of romantic relationships, the symbolic images of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse reflect certain behaviours that, if not addressed and controlled, can predict the end of a partnership.
The four precursors of relationship trouble and their antidotes:
Most people can recognize criticism right away. It is characterised by verbal attacks and insults towards the other person. The difference between criticism and complaint is that the criticism is directed at the person or the character of the partner, not at a specific behaviour of the partner that is problematic and needs to be changed. Criticism can sound like this: “You don’t care”, “You always put me second”, “You never do things right”. The characteristic formula of criticism is the combination of the use of “You” and overgeneralization (always, never, always). This formula is destructive to the relationship because it is a direct attack on the other person’s personality. As a result, he or she may feel attacked, rejected, and hurt. If you notice criticism from your side or your partner’s side, don’t jump to the conclusion that your relationship will fail. Systemic criticism is a red light that you need to address, as often this behaviour opens the door to your relationship for other horsemen as well.
Why it occurs: Criticism is often an expression of pent-up anger toward a partner.
Antidote to criticism: Gottman found that communication between partners is most effective when they approach each other with tenderness rather than letting their anger control the situation. This approach to conflict is called A gentle start-up. If you have a remark or criticism of your partner, try to present it in a constructive and caring way. Avoid using sentences that start with “You”. Instead, focus on how you feel, not on your partner’s “damaged” personality. Start with how you feel, then present your need and politely ask for it to be met: “I feel neglected when you don’t greet me when you come home from work. I will feel much more confident and satisfied if you do, could you?”. Other ways to enhance tenderness in communication include the use of gentle tone, humour, gentle physical touch, and anything else that enhances warmth and connection between partners. This style of communication greatly increases the likelihood of being heard and understood.
Contempt is several levels harder on relationships than criticism. It involves expressing a sense of superiority or disdain for a partner, often through sarcasm, cynicism, insults, mockery, and specific body language such as eye rolling. At its core, contempt expresses various forms of disrespect. Here are some usual phrases: “You are so stupid”, “You are good for nothing”. Contemptuous behaviour can be harmful because it undermines the foundation of mutual admiration and appreciation that is critical to a healthy relationship. Partners who feel constantly disrespected or belittled are likely to become defensive or withdraw emotionally, leading to a breakdown in communication and intimacy. According to Gottman, this is the horseman that has the most powerful destructive force on a relationship and is critical to be recognized and addressed on time.
Why it occurs: Disdainful behaviour is a verbal and physical manifestation of negative feelings and thoughts toward a partner. It can arise from a variety of sources, and some common factors include negative beliefs and conclusions about the partner’s personality. The most common reason is ineffective communication between the two partners.
Antidote to contempt: The most effective way to address contempt is to build a culture of appreciation between both partners. According to Gottman, appreciation should be the foundation of relationships. Fulfilling relationships require expressions of gratitude, appreciation, affection and admiration from both partners on a daily basis. Some people tend to be more critical and notice the things they don’t like much more easily. If you recognize yourself in this description, try to notice the things that are going well and for which you are thankful to your partner. “Thanks for making me breakfast this morning”, “Your hair smells wonderful!”, “I had a great time last night in your company”. When a strong culture of appreciation is built into a relationship, it is very difficult for contempt to take control and paint the partner in a negative light.
Defensiveness is a defensive response in which one partner denies wrongdoing, does not want to make an apology, or shifts the blame to avoid taking responsibility for the problem. In the context of Gottman’s research, defensiveness is considered a destructive communication pattern because it hinders effective conflict resolution. When one partner becomes defensive, it can escalate the tension in the conversation, which in turn makes it difficult to address the underlying issues. It often leads to a cycle in which one partner’s defensiveness prompts more negative communication, creating a pattern of unproductive and hostile interactions.
Why it occurs: Defensiveness is an automatic defensive response of a partner who is subjected to criticism and/or contempt. Sometimes it can also occur as a response to healthy constructive criticism if the person is having trouble dealing with their feelings of guilt and shame about a situation for which they have to take responsibility.
Antidote to Defensiveness: An effective way to deal with defensiveness is to take responsibility for even just part of the problem. This can be extremely challenging for some people as it requires self-regulation and self-monitoring. If you recognize this behaviour, try to delay your instinctive defensive reaction for a few seconds and think about whether the other person has a point after all. After the pause еven if you don’t think the other person is entirely right, consider whether it would be beneficial to agree at least partially. Here are some responses that are not defensive: “I’ll think about it, you might have a point”, “Yes, it is true that I forgot that appointment. I will make the call to reschedule it right now”. Taking responsibility usually leads to de-escalation and prevents the conflict from heating up more. And most importantly, it opens a field for an effective conversation in which partners can express their needs and get closer again. It is important to note that both partners must take responsibility for problems in the relationship. This rule does not work well if one partner is always blaming the other without taking responsibility for their own behaviour.
The fourth horseman of the apocalypse occurs when one partner withdraws from a conversation or interaction. It is characterised by emotionally closing up and a refusal to have a conversation with the other person. In the context of a relationship, stonewalling is a significant communication barrier. It often involves a partner becoming unresponsive, emotionally distant and uncommunicative during a conflict or difficult conversation. The ignoring partner may look and feel like a stone wall that is silent, avoids eye contact, or physically leaves the space without giving an explanation as to what caused this reaction. Such behaviour makes the other partner feel unheard, frustrated and abandoned. According to Gottman, stonewalling can be especially harmful because it prevents conflict resolution and creates a sense of emotional abandonment for the partner trying to communicate. It can lead to disconnection between partners and contribute to a cycle of escalating negative interactions.
Why it occurs: Often during conflict, one or both partners do not know how to handle the pressure they feel upon themselves. One of the most common strategies for emotional regulation is to shut down and ignore the other person. Some people need some alone time after a heated conversation to regulate themselves. They often do not know how to communicate this need to their partner and simply withdraw without giving an explanation. Another reason for stonewalling to occur is when it is purposefully used by one partner to punish the other. This is a particularly harmful way of communication (or its lack) and contributes to the loss of trust in the relationship.
Antidote to stonewalling: John Gottman points to physiological self-regulation as the most appropriate method for dealing with the last horseman. If you’ve gotten into a heated conversation with your partner, the first step to self-regulation is to stop the interaction. The second step is to explain in an empathetic way to your partner that you need some time alone to regulate yourself. Here’s an example: “Honey, I’m so sorry to interrupt our conversation, but I’m feeling extremely upset. Can we take a 20 minute break and continue the conversation after that?”. It is important that the rest is at least 20 minutes, as this is how long your body needs to recover its relaxed state. Spend this time doing an activity that will calm you down. Read a book, play a video game, or go for a short walk. Learning how to deal with stonewalling is important because it has the potential to create a safe and open space for communication, encourage emotional expression, and find ways to engage in constructive dialogue even when faced with challenging issues.
A step towards change
While we can agree that there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for successful relationships, according to Gottman’s research, the four behaviours presented are significantly damaging to our relationship. In the context of Gottman’s research, eliminating these behaviours is part of creating a more positive and responsive communication pattern in a relationship.
If these toxic communication patterns are creeping into your relationships as well, it’s worth addressing them and trying to eliminate them. Changing your behaviour is possible but it is a challenging task. If you are experiencing difficulties, do not hesitate to contact a mental health professional to walk with you on the path to change.