There are many ongoing negative impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, but it has presented an important opportunity for many of us to evaluate and reconsider the ways we are spending our time.

Without access to our typical social, recreational and community activities, most families have spent more time together in recent months. In my personal life and clinical practice, I have seen a shift for many people from initially feeling a little overwhelmed with all the family time (especially without the external activities or emotional and practical support we are accustomed to) to a settling in and enjoyment of a slower-paced schedule and more intimate time with loved ones. 

An enormous amount of research suggests that strong relationships are central to good mental health. Farmers likely understand this: We are ultimately herd animals and we need others to sustain us.

While there is no “one size fits all” or “quick fix” approach to improving relationships, understanding some of the factors associated with healthy, successful relationships can guide you in improving your own relationships.

Over the next few articles, I will provide some guidance for improving marital or romantic relationships by highlighting the two most prominent approaches to couples therapy, The Gottman Method and Emotion-Focused Therapy.

These strategies are also useful in professional and other interpersonal relationships.

The Gottman Method of Couples Therapy was developed by John and Julie Gottman, a married couple conducting research together on relationships for over 40 years. They have studied thousands of couples and have found factors associated with healthy and lasting relationships (and their opposite).

The Gottmans have written several books with practical suggestions for improving relationships, including “Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” “Eight Dates” and “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.”

We will begin with an exploration of what the Gottmans call “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These four communication patterns — especially when they occur without successful “repair” — are the most important predictors of unhealthy and unsuccessful relationships.

While all couples might have occasional incidents of criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling, these behaviors are hurtful and damaging to relationships. The Gottman Method outlines an antidote to each of these harmful communication strategies.

As you read, see if you can identify problematic patterns in your own behavior and consider ways to use the suggested antidote to improve your own relationships. 

Constructive criticism

Criticism is defined as a global/general attack on another person (typically occurring when in conflict), which is different than a “complaint” about a specific behavior and how it affects you. The antidote to criticism is to use specific examples and “I statements” that focus on how your partner’s behavior affects you (instead of labeling or criticizing their character).

Read through the following criticizing statements and their “antidote.” How would you feel in each example? Which makes you more defensive or angry? Which makes you more likely to listen and empathize and work towards resolution? 

  • General Criticism: You never listen to me. Specific Example with “I” Statement: I felt disrespected when I was talking to you about my work stress and you did not stop what you were doing to listen.
  • General Criticism: You always yell at me. Specific Example: I felt angry and disappointed when you raised your voice at me in front of the kids.
  • General Criticism: You’re always rude when my mother is here. Specific Example: I was hurt when you watched TV the whole time my Mom was here instead of hanging out with her.
  • General Criticism: You are so messy. Specific Example: When you left your clothes on the floor it made me feel like you do not value all the hard work I do to keep our home clean.

The focus on a specific behavior and incident, as well as the way it made the partner feel, reduce the listener’s defensiveness and make it much more likely that they will engage with you, notice your hurt and concerns, and work with you towards repair. 

Deescalating defensiveness

Defensiveness occurs when one partner feels criticized and then resists a (real or perceived) attack. Defensiveness almost always leads to an escalation in conflict, as someone who feels defensive will usually attack or counter-attack the other partner.

The Gottman antidote for defensiveness is to help the defensive partner take responsibility for their portion of the conflict. This does not mean it is all your fault, but when we can look for the “kernel of truth,” we can work towards repair and reduce escalation in hurt and conflict.

When feeling defensive, you are encouraged to slow down and ask questions so that you can better understand your partner’s feelings or complaints. You can see how reducing criticism can lead to reduced defensiveness, and much better conflict resolution and a happier, more stable partnership! 

Cutting out contempt

Contempt is a verbal or non-verbal expression of condescension towards someone else. Simply, contempt is a “put down” and can take the form of sarcasm, cynicism, mocking, belittling, name calling, sneering, making faces, making “jokes” at a partner’s expense, or other “passive-aggressive” behaviors.

We have all likely been the subject of contempt from a loved one, and it is very painful. Successful couples do not have contempt in their communication. If you find contempt in your relationship, it is very important to work on it if you want your relationship to improve. 

The Gottman antidote for contempt is to describe one’s own needs/feelings in the moment instead of using these damaging passive-aggressive behaviors. For example, instead of contemptuously saying “You’re going to need a whole new wardrobe if you keep eating that ice cream,” you could say “This is hard to say directly, but I am concerned that you are not taking your health seriously and every time you eat ice cream I get upset as a result.”

Both partners are also encouraged to directly and respectfully “call out” contempt when they see it. In the former example, the partner who was belittled could say “I am noticing you talking down to me right now and I am going to walk away until you can be more respectful.” 

Stop stonewalling

Stonewalling is when one partner refuses to engage in communication with the other partner. It may include physically walking away, “the silent treatment,” refusal to listen to/engage with the other, and generally not opening up or being willing to communicate.

Stonewalling can occur intentionally (i.e., the partner consciously chooses not to engage with the other in order to hurt or punish them) or more unconsciously (i.e., the mind and body are too overwhelmed to engage in communication and therefore these shutdown strategies happen in order to reduce emotional arousal).

In any case, stonewalling is very damaging to relationships, as it prevents connection and the possibility of repair. 

The Gottman antidote to stonewalling is to work on improved internal coping or “self-soothing” strategies. Strategies include deep breathing and taking a time-out in a way that has been negotiated with the partner ahead of time (i.e., if conflict can get heated, talk at a time when things are calm and plan that the next time things get overwhelming, both partners will take a break for 20 minutes and then come back together).

The “time-out” strategy is very helpful only if it allows emotions to calm enough so that rejoining can occur. If the timeout is used without the reconnection, it will only lead to one partner feeling abandoned and a reescalation of conflict in the future. 

We all have patterns in our relationships that are less than perfect. Don’t beat yourself up if you find some of these in your own life, but instead, see them as an opportunity for growth in yourself and your relationships.

These habits are hard to break, but if either partner can stop and notice, the more healthy and helpful communication strategies can begin to replace the old, harmful ones.

Couples or family therapy can be very helpful in identifying and reworking negative patterns. If you would like to improve your relationship, you do not need to wait until things are dire to get support. 

Dr. Lauren Welter is a licensed psychologist. She lives on a livestock and crop farm near Monticello, Iowa, with her husband Dan and their children. Contact her through her website, or call 319-975-8705.