Teaching & Learning

How to keep the “four horsemen” at bay


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Psychologist John Gottman has identified four behaviors that are the death knell for most relationships, but it’s possible to fight them off and preserve a healthy union.

A complaint focuses on a specific behavior, while a criticism attacks the character of the person. The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame. Talk about your feelings using “I” statements and then express a positive need.

Criticism: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.”

Antidote: “I’m feeling left out by our talk tonight. Can we please talk about my day?”

Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but that never solves the problem at hand. Defensiveness is a way of blaming your partner and saying, in effect, “the problem isn’t me, it’s you.” As a result, the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.

Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late, it’s your fault.”

Antidote: “Well, part of this is my problem, I need to think more about time.”

Displays of contempt include sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated. The antidote is building a culture of appreciation and respect.

Contempt: “You’re an idiot.”

Antidote: “I’m proud of the way you handled that teacher conference.”

One partner withdraws from an interaction. He or she stops responding and shuts down when feeling overwhelmed by a fight or conflict discussion.

Antidote: Practice physiological self-soothing and stop the conflict discussion. Let your partner know that you’re feeling flooded and need to take a break for at least twenty minutes, since it will be that long before your body physiologically calms down. It’s crucial during this time to avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore”) and innocent victimhood (“Why is he always picking on me?”). Spend time doing something soothing and distracting, like listening to music or exercising.
source: The Gottman Institute


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