“I want to love you without clutching, appreciate you without judging, join you without invading, invite you without demanding, leave you without guilt, criticize you without blaming, and help you without insulting. If I can have the same from you, then we can truly meet and enrich each other.”
― Virginia Satir
Relationships are an intricate dance, and understanding the dynamics between partners is crucial for fostering a healthy and lasting connection. While it’s essential to recognize the blatant red flags like abuse and neglect, delving into the nuances of communication can be just as vital. Drawing from renowned relationship experts like Gottman’s four horsemen, we’ll go a little deeper and explore the subtle yet impactful elements that can shape the trajectory of a relationship. Spoiler alert: we’ll talk a lot about empathy, read on for more!
The Four Horsemen
If you’re familiar with the Gottman method, you may have heard of the four horsemen. These are four behaviors that undermine the health of relationships, and we talk a lot about them in couples therapy. Understanding these four behaviors allows us to go deeper in our work together, working to add to your relationship.
The Destructive Power of Criticism
One of the primary challenges in relationships lies in distinguishing between criticism and constructive complaints. Criticizing the core or character of a partner can erode the foundation of the relationship, by making them feel inadequate. When a partner is constantly being criticized, they start to wonder if who they are isn’t good enough! Instead, learning to express complaints while taking ownership of one’s feelings allows for a more constructive dialogue. Put simply, when you have something you want to say, try telling your partner that you feel a certain way when they do a certain thing. One example is if you can’t stand that your partner leaves the kitchen messy overnight, challenge the part of you that wants to use words like messy or lazy. Try saying something more like “Hey, when you leave the kitchen messy overnight, I feel stressed out the next day and like you don’t care. It would help me to feel more cared for if you could tidy the kitchen before bed”. It’s a simple swap, but it can really help–and it’s easier said than done!
The Toxicity of Contempt
Contempt, manifested through behaviors like mocking, eye rolling, and dismissiveness, creates an environment where individuals feel worthless. Building a strong relationship requires the opposite – validation. When partners feel accepted, valued, and heard, it fosters a sense of worthiness and belonging. Ultimately, validation goes hand in hand with empathy. We’ll talk more about that in just a minute!
Defensiveness and Stonewalling: Relationship Roadblocks
Defensiveness and stonewalling can create barriers to effective communication. Feeling unheard or undervalued prompts individuals to question their presence in the relationship. Recognizing and addressing these behaviors is crucial for dismantling these roadblocks. Both partners need to be present in the conversation, to be able to empathize with each others’ perspectives.
The Common Thread
All Four Horsemen have a common denominator: the feeling of not being accepted, valued, heard, and seen for who one truly is. Understanding this shared aspect emphasizes the importance of cultivating acceptance and validation in relationships. Now that we’ve underscored how important these things are, how do we work on those things?
Building a Foundation for Healthy Relationships
Beyond avoiding destructive behaviors, certain factors contribute to a thriving relationship. You can probably list them off! Love, commitment, and effective communication form the bedrock, while a willingness to meet each other’s needs, shared values, and goals in life add depth and longevity. These are areas that we can work together as a team to improve your relationship, and build the foundation for success.
Navigating Interpersonal Needs
It’s crucial to recognize and realize the need for control and the desire to be right. A relationship is a partnership, and when one person loses, the relationship suffers. Shifting focus to what’s best for the relationship, rather than individual victories, strengthens the bond. When we focus on trying to meet our own need to be right, we cannot meet a relationship need to find a mutually acceptable solution. Also, just ask yourself: Has being right gotten you anywhere or given you anything good ever in your relationship?
At the end of the day, it’s about both partners getting their needs met in a way that works for both partners. This requires both partners to be able to see each others’ inner worlds for what they are: reflections of each persons’ histories and experiences.
Empathy Over Judgment
Creating an environment of empathy involves understanding each other’s perspectives. It requires the ability to enter your partner’s world, comprehending their upbringing, thoughts, and feelings without internalizing everything. More empathy and less judgment pave the way for a deeper connection. In therapy, we work not only to see each others’ perspectives but to truly understand them. And then we use that insight to find a solution that works for everyone.
Joint Effort and Clarifying Assumptions
Building a strong relationship is a joint effort. Partners should communicate openly about their needs and work collaboratively to ensure both are fulfilled. Clarifying assumptions becomes essential to avoid misunderstandings and foster a deeper understanding of each other. Since both partners have their own inner worlds that don’t match 100% perfectly, it’s easy to misunderstand the WHY behind your partner’s needs–and then struggle to meet them! One way to combat this is to try asking more about why. In our example with the messy kitchen, you may not understand why your partner seems to be livid when the kitchen isn’t tidied overnight. Skip the screaming, and try asking your partner WHY it makes them so upset! This way, no one feels like they are the issue–at the end of the day, the issue is the messy kitchen!
It is important to understand the impact something has on our partners so that 1. We don’t pathologize them ( what’s wrong with you that you get so upset over a messy kitchen) or ourselves ( what’s wrong with me that I cannot ever do anything right and make my partner happy) 2. We can truly understand what comes up for them in those situations and do our best to avoid repeating it.
Taking Ownership and Growth
An ‘aha’ moment in a relationship occurs when individuals recognize their contributions to the dynamics. Instead of deflecting blame, acknowledging one’s part empowers personal growth. Understanding that change is within one’s control fosters a positive environment for transformation.
Lots of couples need help navigating this, and I would love to be part of your journey towards a more loving and fulfilling relationship. Reach out here.
Understanding, and addressing the nuances can make all the difference. By navigating the pitfalls of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, and focusing on empathy, joint effort, and growth, couples can build a foundation that withstands the tests of time. It’s not about perfection but about a shared journey toward acceptance, growth, and lasting connection that honors the love that you share.