For over 40 years, the psychologist, Professor John Gottman, has devoted his life to analysing the relationships of married couples.
His wife is furious.
She thought he was out fishing.
During that time, he’s closely observed couples in an effort to understand what kind of behaviours predict either a successful long-term partnership, or a marriage destined for divorce. If you ever wake up and there’s a man at the end of your bed taking notes, it’s probably John. He’ll flash you his ID and be on his way. If he flashes anything else, call the police.
Gottman’s work on the subject of relationships has many parallels in the business world. It’s pretty much all about relationships, after all. So here, courtesy of Gottman, are the four main signs that he’s identified as being particularly unhealthy in a partnership. My wife’s already mastered the first two and is currently working towards her City and Guilds in three and four.
That’s what you call commitment.
Everyone complains to each other from time to time. Married couples more than most. But it’s a particular type of corrosive criticism that Gottman identifies as being so destructive. Anything that involves a frying pan, for instance. Or, more specifically, when the criticism strikes at the very core of the other person’s being, their personality. For example: “You’re late because you don’t care about me”.
Anyone can be late, of course, but here the criticism implies that you did it on purpose or for some other deeper, sinister meaning. According to John, repeated criticisms of this nature means that the end of the relationship is close at hand. A bit like the frying pan.
Gottman found that contempt for a partner was the single greatest predictor of divorce. It can involve sarcasm, name-calling, mimicking and eye-rolling. Unfurling a banner on a motorway bridge is also a sure sign. Even if it does say ‘Happy Birthday, Loser!’
Whatever form it takes, contempt makes the other person feel worthless. It cuts across the first three, fundamental psychological drivers.
It’s also bad for your health. Gottman found that couples who were contemptuous of each other often suffered more infectious diseases like colds and flu. Which is why he always took an extra pace back from the bed.
A person is too defensive when they are constantly making excuses for their failures or slip-ups. Sure, we all do it, but when it becomes a persistent theme it often signals the end of a relationship. Worse still is when defensiveness is coupled with trying to score points off the other person. Not like in squash or badminton – that’s just tactics. But in a personal relationship you’re supposed to support one another. After all, life is difficult enough without being attacked from within.
Stonewalling is when a person metaphorically raises the drawbridge and cuts off all communication. There are no nods of encouragement when their partner speaks, no attempt to empathise and no effort to respond or connect. Hence the phrase ‘It’s like talking to a brick wall.’
Stonewalling is often a result of a prolonged period of criticism, contempt and defensiveness. For some people, the only response to this worsening situation is to shut up shop and send the other person to Coventry. Note: you don’t have to be a retailer in the west midlands to practice this.
So there you have it. Or, hopefully, you don’t. But if you do happen to spot any of the above signs creeping into your relationships then it’s a good idea to do something about it before it’s too late.
So what CAN you do if those four things exist in your relationship?
Well, Gottman has found happy couples use five times more positive behaviours in their arguments than negative ones. For instance, humour is a good way to break the tension of an argument.
Just don’t use the terms ‘bat wings’ or ‘lardy arse’ even in a playful manner.
Here are Gottman’s top four tips:
1 Edit yourself
Don’t say out loud every critical thought you have whilst discussing a touchy topic. Much better to just think it. Remember, everything you say to your partner will either nurture your relationship or tear it down. You may win the argument but lose the marriage.
2 Soften your ‘start up’
Bring up problems gently and without blame rather than kicking off with a critical or contemptuous remark. There’s plenty of time for those later. If you are a man you need to know that female bottoms never look big in anything. Ever.
3 Accept influence from your partner.
In heterosexual marriages, it was discovered that a relationship succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife. So if you’re a bloke, man up and do as you’re told. The good news is that women are already well practiced at accepting influence from men.
4 Learn to repair and exit the argument
In marriage, you often have to yield to win, much like in the martial art of Aikido. Not to be confused with Tai Kwando where you just beat the crap out of each other. Don’t be afraid to give ground, back down and ‘tackle the problem together’.
The most successful couples are those who refuse to accept hurtful behaviour from one another. Plus, when discussing problems, they make five times as many positive statements as negative ones. For example, “We laugh a lot” as opposed to “We never have any fun.”
Remember, relationships are only successful to the degree that the problems you have are ones you can cope with. And what really matters is not conflict resolution, but the attitudes that surround discussion of the conflict. Happy couples have the ability to exchange viewpoints and accept that there will always be differences between them.