Enhancing Relationships

In dealing with conflicts that arise as people/groups/communities struggle to enhance their relationships, the suggestions of psychotherapist, John Gottman, Ph.D, are particularly noteworthy.   Dr. Gottman notes that there are four predictors of failures in relationships: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

CRITICISM: Complaints are common and are to be expected in relationships.  A complaint will address a specific action of another person.  However, when a complaint becomes a judgment or condemnation, a negative attack on the personality or the character of another, the criticism contributes to a very unhappy and unproductive environment.  Individuals who are preoccupied with these destructive behaviors make it difficult for either party to feel love and friendship.  Criticism should be avoided realizing that it can potentially lead to the other three, more lethal liabilities.

CONTEMPT: Contempt, the most deadly of the four horsemen, serves only to fuel anger and hostility in a partner/group/community.  When contempt overpowers a person, it often conveys hatred, leaving no room in one’s heart for genuine love, tenderness and kindness.  According to Gottman, a conversation becomes contemptuous when a person uses hostile humor, sarcasm and cynicism.  Eye rolling, name-calling, mockery and sneering are typically contemptuous as they serve to demean the other person.  Contempt moves to an even more serious level when it becomes belligerence, an anger-induced threat or provocation intended to intimidate others.  In either case contempt or belligerence detracts from respect that is a foundation of a meaningful relationship.

DEFENSIVENESS: Research shows that defensiveness, a form of blaming the other person, merely serves to escalate a conflict. The parties step on a treadmill, and an attack/defend mode goes into motion unless one person is willing to accept responsibility for his/her piece in the problem.  Defensiveness surfaces when an individual is criticized or is feeling the partner’s contempt.  This type of negative attribution will detract from a fondness and admiration system that should prevail in meaningful relationship systems.

STONEWALLING: The fourth horseman develops as a result of the other three.  When these three become fixtures in the relationship, one party often distances or shuts down completely. The stonewaller often looks for an “out,” not just in the conflict but in the commitment to the partnership/community.  Gottman proposes the following to replace the horsemen:  Instead of criticizing, complain without suggesting that one’s partner is somehow defective.  Instead of defensiveness, accept responsibility for a part of the problem. Instead of contempt, create a culture of praise and pride.  Instead of stonewalling, self-soothe, give the listener feedback, and stay emotionally connected.

Refer to John Gottman’s The Seven Principles of Making a Marriage Work, and Clinical Manual for Marital Therapy

Submitted by:  Sharon White, SSJ, D.Min, LCSW

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