Communication lies at the heart of every relationship. The ways in which we communicate not only create an ecosystem of interaction and energy, but communication is also the way in which we manifest the future. How we communicate with ourselves centralizes how we communicate with others. When we offer this self-knowledge in the shared project that is marriage or a committed partnership, how well we know ourselves can enhance or detract from the habitability of the commitment ecosystem.
Within my studies as a sociologist, my specialization, relationships, relies on the ever-expanding knowledge of what it means to be married and have a family. Please note that I believe in the broad spectrum of humanity and how we express our gender and sexual identities. The work of John Gottman is largely heteronormative, however, I will be filling in the missing aspects within this guide to help you understand that, not only can you make your own rules to protect the hearth of your marriage, but you will also be able to recognize the sanctity of same sex marriage, platonic intimate relationships, and other queer forms of connection. It is in these spaces that John Gottman’s work is most useful, because not only do we have to understand how to integrate our shortcomings and biases within our relationship, but we have to also do this with the human family. Especially when bringing children into the world.
I want you to lean into the sharpness of conflict. I want you to address the war within. Take a deep breath.
Who is John Gottman?
John Gottman is an incredible social scientist with over 40 years of both research and counseling experience within the marriage and family frameworks. His methods are often studied at prestigious universities and for their practical advice, predictions, and warning signs of a marriage failure long before it becomes apparent. Through the years, Gottman and his team have made exponential progress through in-depth observational studies. Non-verbal communication, non-conflict interactions, and couple interviews are the nucleus of Gottman’s work. The findings are then converted into predictive algorithms that can help a couple know where they stand.
Furthermore, Gottman also applies a basic rule entitled the magic ratio. The happiest relationships have five positive interactions to one negative one. How we address conflict and how we respond to the projections of others can determine how successful we are in maintaining the structural integrity of the relationship ecosystem.
Here is the big question: Do you fight fair?
There are correct ways in which conflict can bring a sense of connection, peace, and unity to a relationship OR it can act as a corrosive. Research at the Gottman Institute describes four major corrosives to a relationship, the four horsemen of the apocalypse as predictors of imminent relationship doom.
Communication Corrosives: Defining Gottman’s Four Horsemen
Know your enemy, know yourself. The following communication corrosives have a profound effect on how well you can maintain a stable relationship.
While Gottman and his research team have determined that criticism is the least dangerous of the four horsemen, it is important to identify criticism for what it is - an act of violence. Criticism is a way of slowly destabilizing a person’s inner compass, causing them to question the efficacy of their existence. The hum of peace in the relationship disappears with every eroding comment. “You always leave your socks on the floor.” “You never put enough effort in with sex.” “Why can’t you remember your keys?” Criticism is a big block to developing intimacy, trust, and abiding love. The biggest problem with criticism is that it is so pervasive in our daily language through sarcasm, passive-aggressive behaviors, and superiority complexes that we have a hard time seeing its insidious nature. Over time, it attacks the vitality of relationships until all joy is wasted away.
So what happens when criticism becomes an action out of control? It begins to grow the seeds of disgust, aversion, and bitterness. This is Contempt.
The deep meaning of contempt is that the other person is deserving of the negative feelings associated with the emotional labor of criticism. To the person on the receiving end, the energy of being under a scornful gaze corrodes both the motivation and innocence in the relationship. Let’s unpack what I just said with this example:
Sally has been wanting her wife, Marla to compliment her when she cleans the kitchen. She is a messy cook and Marla has repeatedly asked her to clean as she goes. One evening Sally made Marla a delicious plate of chicken marsala. As Sally was plating the food, Marla hovered to make sure she was following the house rules. When Marla finally sat down and received her food, she inspected the fork. “Is everything okay?” Sally asks. Marla, frustrated, sighs, “It’s fine. It’s your kind of meal prep.”
Marla makes her contempt known both verbally and non-verbally. She criticizes her wife’s efforts by inspecting the silverware and hovering over her as she prepares. When Sally reaches out for reassurance, she is met with contempt in the form of Marla’s frustrating dishonesty.
To harbor feelings of contempt from a partner often signifies a breakage in the foundation of the relationship. When this happens, tensions are extremely high. For example, while Marla may not have meant anything by inspecting the fork, Sally perceived it as the dissatisfaction that Marla has expressed both verbally and non-verbally. So, Sally reacts. This is defensiveness.
Defensiveness is a simple yet very destructive reaction energy. It is a form of victimhood and is often used when a person does not feel safe or is trying to manipulate their partner. Defensiveness acts as a false boundary - it makes a person feel safe and even vindicated, but it ultimately leads to a full-on communication war with mass casualties.
Sally says, “Can’t I do anything right? You always make me feel bad, even when I am trying!” (defensive)
Now Sally has taken the stance of the innocent victim.
“Are you trying?” Marla retorts. (contempt)
Now Marla is the offender and makes matters worse with her apathetic response.
Sally: “Am I trying…? YES! Can’t you see that? I made you dinner, I helped you with your work project, I am home tonight and every single night, now. I stopped working late, I give you attention! What more do you want?”
Marla does not respond because she feels backed into a corner. She shuts down. This is Stonewalling.
Stonewalling is the act of putting up a wall between the intimate connection of a couple. Although it usually occurs during heated conflicts, it also presents itself in apathy, deference, and the silent treatment. The difference between stonewalling and solitude is that stonewalling is an intentionally aggressive act. It is being sent as a message. Solitude is an organic gravitation toward solitary restfulness. One is helpful, the other is not.
“Why are you so stoic?! Why won't you talk to me?!” Sally screams and storms out of the house.
Marla bursts into tears. Why does Marla cry? Because in a response to danger and conflict, one can fight, fly, or fawn. Stonewalling is fawning, playing dead. When used as a manipulative strategy to gain control of a relationship or situation, there is little to be done to revive this relationship. Stonewalling is the culmination of all the horsemen and the pain they rode in on.
Hunter’s Guide to Holistically Healing the Four Horsemen
Is there an antidote to every poison? Yes. Sometimes the antidotes require a complex formula to heal the affected areas. In the case of the Four Horsemen of the relationship apocalypse, this is a disciplined practice of energy work, self-analysis, and practice in helpful conflict resolution strategies.
Root causes: Unresolved pain, lack of closure, not being heard, feeling a lack of faith in personal choices, disconnect with flow and goal stream.
Symptoms: malaise, depressive behaviors, verbal expressions of disappointment, micromanaging tasks, constant nagging
Energy Disruptions: Disruption with the solar plexus and root chakras: often associated with survival energy, and the need for emotional safety.
Archetype: Orphan, Oppressor
If you find that you tend to oppress your partner through criticism. It is a reflection of the choice you made. Any urge to criticize a person that you chose, reveals a lack of faith and trust in your own choices. Address the root cause and allow your compass to point to the moment when you stopped trusting that you knew your needs and wants better than anyone. Practice releasing negative indoctrination from your formative years. Address your fear of loss. Be comfortable with change.
If you find that you are often criticized in a relationship, each criticism forms together to create a boulder of instability on your back. You may feel like you haven't a friend in the world. These feelings, while real, can lead to a lot of self-criticisms as a distraction from you accepting your responsibility. The Orphan archetype often finds themselves being criticized and will unconsciously choose partners that are critical to have a built-in excuse for learned helplessness. This feeds the cycle of criticism and helps no one. Therefore, the orphan must be soothed with the discipline of active listening and putting into practice how to be the best partner. In this way, the orphan is satisfied with being needed and wanted in a home. Settling into a routine in which they journal, contemplate, and practice the energy work of self-reflection is best for the Orphan. You were given solitude for a reason.
Criticism Conflict Resolution
Within the framework of conflict resolution, criticism can be eradicated with open, neutral body language. Lean in, make eye contact, and extend your light to the other person. When a person feels heard, not only do they feel validated, they do not repeat themselves. After they have spoken, let their words rest on your heart. You may feel the urge to be defensive or to argue your intentions, however, if you take note, breathe, and reflect on what your partner said by repeating in your own words your interpretation, you will rise above the fray of criticism. Eliminate the following from your relationship dialect: you always, you never, why can’t you, how come you do/do not, what’s wrong with you.
Root Causes: Unspoken anguish, lack of forgiveness, feeling a sense of betrayal, character changes that cause negative relationship outcomes.
Symptoms: passive aggression, mocking, lack of interest in partner’s contributions, apathy, deferring major decisions to the other person.
Energy Disruptions: Disruption with the throat and third eye chakras: often associated with mistrust and omission.
For those of you who struggle yet another day to see your partner grow, be mindful of the judge archetype. The energy needed to pinpoint exactly who it is this stranger in your house has become and whether they deserve your forgiveness for causing you pain, is costly, to say the least. However, the flooding of your third eye and the closing of your throat chakra can cause disruptions in your communication. At some point, if this energy deficit is not cleared and the equilibrium is restored with forgiveness, there will be nothing left to salvage. In your self-reflection time, ask yourself: When I committed to my partner did I believe that they would deserve to be punished for their mistakes? Do I feel as if I deserve to be punished for my own?
For those of you who are under the burning gaze of contempt, ask yourself how did I get here? There are self-worth issues to address within the mental-emotional energy field of your body. Be unafraid to look back (especially during mercury retrograde) to understand where on the journey you felt unworthy. Address the pain head-on, open your throat chakra, and speak your truth, knowing that to err is human. This will encourage your partner and others around you to embrace their fallibilities rather than let them commander their entire personality.
Contempt Conflict Resolution
Within the framework of conflict resolution, contempt can only be soothed, and dissolved. Offer physical affection in the form of a heart-to-heart hug. Recognize your failings openly and honestly and use them as ways to innovate reconnection with your partner. If you want to help your partner remember tasks, apply practical strategies to avoid conflict. Expand your energy and lead with kindness, even in the face of vitriol.
An essential aspect of healing contempt is to say what you mean and only what you mean. Have the courage to stand by what you say and what you feel. Remember that grace is free.
Root causes: reactive energy motivated by perceived attacks, the delusion of purity and innocence (see innocent victim), need for validation, justice, and vindication.
Symptoms: countering constructive criticism, stubbornness, and polarizing opinions within the culture of the relationship (outside of arguments).
Energy Disruptions: Disruption with the heart and sacral chakras: often associated with feeling misunderstood.
If you are on a personal crusade to defend your honor in your relationship you are a victim of defensiveness. Usually, the way to know if you are a martyr in a relationship is if you feel that even constructive criticism is a personal attack. In your conflict response, you may feel indignant. “How dare you perceive that I could make a mistake?” This is a dangerous root of perfectionism and narcissism. Somewhere along the line, you were given the wrong information about mistakes. You judge your own, and you may cast a patina of self-assuredness, however, the moment one of your mistakes is revealed to you, it is a devastating moment of humanity.
The archetype of the martyr and demon are so close, they are almost one and the same because they offer the same action energy from different angles. Both are glamor’s of perception that can be donned and doffed as they suit the couple’s fighting strategy. The Martyr is the victim and the Demon is the instigator…or is the Martyr an instigator and the demon a victim? Sometimes we hold on to our demons as much as they attach themselves to us.
Therefore, defensiveness is a result of a mutual power struggle, a tug-of-war that causes exhaustion for the couple and convolutes any attempts at achieving homeostasis.
Defensiveness Conflict Resolution
Within the framework of conflict resolution, defensiveness is best addressed with neutrality. Open your hearts to one another and agree to lay your weapons down. Sit at your marriage table and share facts only. If you feel the energy of manipulation or the urge to manipulate. Walk away and rest with the promise of resolving the conflict later.
Root Causes: reactive energy motivated by an intense fear response (fawning), overstimulation of information, most commonly associated with feelings of inadequacy, and apathy.
Symptoms: shutting down, silent treatment, lack of foreplay and after play, emotional unavailability
Energy Disruptions: Disruption with the crown and solar plexus chakras: often associated with feeling overwhelmed and unresolved trauma.
According to Gottman, stonewalling is the most destructive of the four horsemen. It signifies lines drawn in the sand, power struggles, and a resignation to the issues once faced in unity within the relationship.
For a commanding type of personality, to stonewall is a strategic act of misdirection. Based on a person’s non-verbal communication, stonewalling can present itself as one playing dumb, pretending to not understand, or simply just cutting off their energy supply to their partner. If this feels like something that resonates with you from a behavioral standpoint, it may be time to address unchecked rage and unresolved trauma.
For the subordinate archetype, stonewalling is only resolved with the right act of submission/penitence. This is why it is so painful and nearly impossible to recover from. All is not lost! You still have the opportunity to pick up the pieces destroyed by the wrecking ball of stonewalling.
Stonewalling Conflict Resolution
Within the framework of conflict resolution, stonewalling can be best interpreted as a person receiving an energetic TKO. If you see them fading behind their eyes while you are venting, stop everything. Let the moment settle. Walk away.
This is a sign for both parties to immerse themselves in solitude and trust the process of healing. Sometimes, there is nothing more to do than to let go. The best way to help restore the vivacity of your relationship is to let go of hurts and have the courage to encourage your partner.
Learning How to Communicate
Learning how to communicate is the best way to maintain the health of your relationship. As you have learned how John Gottman and I have interpreted the Four Horseman, it is your turn to take action. Comment below on how you have grown! Feel free to call me at x4875 with questions.
Hunter was called into the world of spiritual service in 1993 after a childhood filled with healing and spiritual premonitions. An ordained minister, yoga and Reiki teacher, Hunter holds a doctorate degree in divinity, a degree in Sociology, and is a proud member of the LGBTQIA+ community. She specializes in mediumship, interpersonal relationships, social identities, and creative living.
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