What causes some relationships to flourish, and others to fade away? Why does one couple live happily ever after, while another sinks like the Titanic? One thing is certain – building lasting relationships is not easy. It’s also not getting easier. Happily, many therapists believe that lifelong friendships are not beyond reach. And surprisingly, their advice is similar to what my third-grade teacher used to say.
“Johnny, stop pointing at other students. Every time you point a finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointing back at you. So, why don’t you pay attention to what you’re doing instead of focusing on others?” Fast-forward to today. My goatee is transforming from black to grey. Next year my oldest daughter will enter third grade. Yet, my grade-school teacher’s advice remains sound. Children benefit from paying attention to their own actions. As it turns out, adults profit from this as well.
In his masterpiece, The Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work, relationship expert John Gottman lists four relationship-killing actions. He refers to them as, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. These lethal equestrians are so destructive that their presence creates an 82% chance of marriage ending in divorce. Gottman’s horsemen include:
- Criticism: Criticism goes beyond complaining. It entails speaking negatively about the character of one’s partner.
- Contempt: This horseman comes in the form of eye-rolling, sneering, name-calling, etc. In short, contempt is any action where one person shows disdain for another.
- Defensiveness: Defensiveness is a passive-aggressive form of blaming. It indirectly states, “The problem doesn’t lie with me–It’s all you!”
- Stonewalling: This occurs when one person checks-out entirely. Stonewalling is used to avoid exploring one’s own contribution to the problem. It is defensiveness on steroids.
It’s important to note that each toxic communication pattern points the finger at someone else. Criticism and contempt blame others directly. Defensiveness and stonewalling take a more subtle approach. Nevertheless, all four have accusation at their core. The good news is that we can reduce this damage by using repair attempts. Repair attempts are actions that deescalate the tension. They include:
- The use of humor
- A gentle touch
- A soft look
Repair attempts are vital to happy relationships. They protect our interactions from becoming flooded with negativity, and promote reconnection. Gottman reports that without repair attempts, the likelihood a relationship will fail increases to the 90th percentile.
Now, let’s apply this research to our third-grade illustration. When someone points the finger through criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, they always damage the relationship. The constructive alternative is to focus on ourselves. Shifting attention away from the other person and onto the multitude of constructive choices available almost always improves the situation.
What I appreciate about Gottman is his commitment to applying scientific research to relationships. This removes the guesswork. So, how does one kill a relationship with 96 percent accuracy? It’s easy. Science verifies that all we need is an intense, negative focus on the other person.
Do you have a relationship that you would like to end with catastrophic flair? Then begin by criticizing the other person’s character. Next, show contempt throughout the day. The more angry slights, name-calling, casual put-downs, and rude gestures you can muster up, the better. If anyone suggests that you might be contributing to the problem, defend, defend, and defend some more. Play the victim. Shift the blame. Keep the attention focused on the other person. Finally, should the accused insist that you are part of the problem, continue to resist – even to the point of shutting down. Above all, do not attempt to repair the damage. This grave mistake will undermine the destructive process.
Since this is a lot to remember, let’s simplify. The bottom line is this: If you want to kill a relationship, focus on changing others. Avoid examining any positive actions that you can take.
Now, let’s move away from the sarcasm and get serious. Aside from a small percentage of outliers, very few people desire to sabotage their relationships. Yet, in spite of the research, countless couples continue to engage in controlling behaviors. The renowned therapist William Glasser referred to these relationship-killing behaviors as, “external control psychology.” Glasser suggests that relationship problems – and much misery in general – stems from attempting to force others to do something they don’t want to do.
Instead, it would be far better for us to concentrate on what we have the power to change. We do this by honing in on the multitude of positive choices available. And if we look close enough, we will usually discover that we have more power than we realize. Attempting to change others kills the relationship. Focusing on improving the things we have the ability to fix leads to positive results. We cannot force change in others, but we do have the ability to change ourselves.
What’s interesting is that when we focus on ourselves, change in others often follows. A pebble tossed into a pond sends ripples that extend to the shore, and a small transformation in our life disrupts old relationship patters and indirectly influences change in others. Nevertheless, focusing on what we can do is easier said than done. Next week, we’ll explore specific strategies for replacing external control psychology with choice theory tools. Doing this drastically increases the odds of forming relationships that last a lifetime!