My spouse and I constantly argue and nothing gets resolved. Eventually, he shuts down when I get so angry and he won’t talk anymore. What can I do to change this pattern because nothing is being resolved?
What’s occurring here is that you individually or both of you are doing something referred to as the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’. You are using contempt, criticism, stonewalling, or defensiveness. By so doing, rather than actually communicating with each other, you each get angrier. Therefore, when you show that anger and when you show that contempt and disdain for the other person, it’s not unusual for the other person to shut down. Shutting down, of course, never makes it better; it always makes it worse because then the other person’s anger or frustration is going to intensify.
You really need to learn what not to do when you argue. You need to have rules. These rules mean that when we disagree or argue, we’re going to be calm. Neither one of us is going to call the other names. We’re not going to bring up past events. And if one of us begins losing control of our emotions, then we will take a timeout for at least two hours before we come back to the subject.
Occasionally we know that some people will refuse to give the timeout because they don’t believe their spouse will ever come back to this subject at all. So again, when a couple makes the rules before they argue, one of the rules must be that you will come back to that subject. Now, if two hours is not workable because it may be at night, then we’ll bring it back up within a certain number of hours, the next morning or whenever it may be convenient. They are probably going to have to learn what not to do, what to stop, what to give up and if they stop doing that, then they can actually deal with these discussions as rational adults without being in opposition to each other, but instead trying to find a solution that both of them can live with. We cover that quite extensively in our Marriage Helper workshop and we will write more about that in future blogs, but the first thing you have to do is to stop hurting each other. If you don’t do that, you’re never going to resolve any conflict.
Joe, You mentioned the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. What does the research show about couples who have one or more of the four horsemen in their conflict resolution?
John Gottman from the Love Lab at the University of Washington is the one who writes about these Four Horsemen and has studied them the most. Let’s look at one of the Four Horsemen, criticism. There’s a difference in criticism and a complaint. A criticism says that something is wrong with you. A complaint says this is something I’m not happy with. For example, let’s take something silly, like a person leaves a door open. If you say, “I’m not happy you left the door open”, that’s a complaint and that’s okay. Criticism says, “Were you brought up in a barn? Shut the door!” That then is criticism or contempt, which communicates to the other person – through either your words, your tone of voice, your facial expressions like rolling your eyes or using hostile humor – that I disdain you, I look down on you.
Another of the Four Horsemen, defensiveness, would be me communicating to you, “Do you think something is wrong with me? Let me tell you what’s wrong with you.” And then stonewalling is when the other person just stops and completely shuts down. They let you know that they are not participating in this conversation anymore.
Now, intuitively, some people would think, “Well, that will make things better”. Inevitably, it makes things worse if the other person is still involved in the conflict. When one of you completely shuts down and the other is still involved in the conflict then the typical reaction is to escalate in order to get back at their spouse. Gottman’s research indicates that if people use these Four Horsemen, then their likelihood of divorcing is over 80%. This research is also based on measuring how quick a couple begins using one or all of the Four Horsemen. If they use the Horsemen quickly in the argument, their likelihood of divorcing is over 80%.
And the research also proves that even if they don’t solve anything else in their marriage, if they just stop using the horsemen, they can dramatically decrease the likelihood that their marriage will end in divorce.
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