Spoiler alert: it’s mostly about not being an asshole.
We’ve all heard the statistic: about half of all marriages end in divorce. And while there’s some debate about the accuracy of that figure, there’s no doubt that far more than half of marriages end up as loveless, sexless partnerships full of simmering resentments and unspoken despair, whether or not they endure.
Some of these marriages may not be salvageable. For instance, if you married the wrong person for the wrong reasons, both of you might be better off making a clean break and searching elsewhere for relationship nirvana. Divorce is not the end of the world: sometimes it’s the best thing for everyone involved. But if you and your partner were once truly in love and happy, and you want to get that spark back, it’s worth considering whether your marriage is being damaged by one of what relationship expert John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, calls ‘The Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse.’
For the most part, overcoming these four things boils down to simply being a kind and compassionate person – but as we all know, that’s easier said than done, especially in intimate relationships, which have a way of getting under our skin and making us act like assholes. As my friend, the writer Tim Kreider, said on a recent Dear Sugar podcast, “Everybody behaves worse in romantic and sexual relationships than they do in other relationships.”
Still, if you’re willing to work on your relationship, nipping these four nasty habits in the bud is a great place to start…
It’s totally normal to have complaints about your partner. The problem comes when you frame these complaints as inherent character flaws in your SO. For example, instead of gently letting your partner know that it drives you bananas when he leaves his crap all over the apartment, you accuse him of being a slob who never properly grew up and doesn’t give a shit about your feelings.
Rather than taking this approach, Gottman suggests pointing the finger back at yourself, focusing on your own needs, rather than on your partner’s terrible personality and insensitivity to your feelings. Criticism never really works – it just tears your partner down and puts him on the defensive. Which brings me to the second horseman…
While women are more likely to be critical, defensiveness is generally a guy thing. Gottman says it can take one of two forms: either he counterattacks, or he sulks. The counterattack will make you angrier than you were to begin with and leave you wondering what happened to make the conversation veer off course so badly, while the sulking approach (“you’re right, I’m terrible, you’d be better off without me, I guess you’re sorry you ever met me”) leaves you frustrated and deflated as you somehow end up comforting and reassuring your partner, when you were the one who was upset in the first place.
There are few things worse than feeling like your partner doesn’t hear or understand you, and this is what defensiveness does to a relationship. If you’re the one who tends to play this position, Gottman suggests that instead of getting defensive, you can choose to simply accept criticism, saying something like, “Talk to me, I want to hear how you feel about this.” Not easy, but definitely a skill worth learning.
This is another move that guys pull far more often than women do; Gottman says that 85 per cent of the time, it’s the man who shuts down and tunes out, refusing to talk about whatever’s causing problems in your relationship. When they do, it sends the message that they don’t care what their partner is going through.
Why do men do this? Usually, it’s because they’ve become what Gottman calls ‘flooded’ – that is, so panicked and overwhelmed that they are totally incapable of responding to what’s happening. When this happens, the best thing to do is take a break. The partner who is flooded, and therefore stonewalling, needs a time-out in order to regain their composure and be able to behave with compassion toward their partner.
Gottman warns that this is the worst of the four horsemen, and its presence in your relationship is the number one indicator that you’ll eventually break up. Contempt signals that you think you’re better than your partner; it’s a form of disrespect that Gottman says is “generally fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts” about your SO. Sarcasm, cynicism, and mockery are all forms of contempt; if you’re guilty of any of them, you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
The antidote to contempt is simply being kind. After all, if your parter is so awful and you hate him so much, why are you with him? And if he’s not awful and you don’t hate him, why are you being so mean?
Like I said before, getting rid of the four horsemen in your relationship is easier said than done. But knowing what they are, and how to combat them, is half the battle. And if you want your relationship to last – and not just last, but be happy – it’s worth the fight.
GIFs via tumblr.com and giphy.com.
Comment: Do you see any of the four horsemen in your relationship?