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4 Communication Red Flags for Your Relationship

It’s not the presence of disagreements in relationships that’s problematic but rather how they are addressed. Dr. Gottman’s identification of the “four horsemen” is central to this conversation.

These Show Notes are a ChatGPT summary of the episode transcript (with brief additional editing)

Communication in relationships, often cited as a recurring challenge, can lead to feelings of isolation and disenchantment when neglected. In this podcast episode, Dr. John Gottman’s research is spotlighted, particularly his insights into the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” — negative communication patterns detrimental to relationships. Hosts Kim and Roger delve deep into these patterns, offering guidance on how to identify these pitfalls, and provide some simple solutions to improve communication.

Dr. John Gottman, a renowned psychologist from the University of Washington, is at the forefront of relationship dynamics research. With over four decades dedicated to the subject, he uses a unique research methodology: observing couples in a controlled “Love Lab” setting. This approach helps him discern behavioural and communication trends that can predict the health of a relationship. His predictions are later verified through follow-up sessions, emphasizing the authenticity of his research. Roger applauds Gottman’s immersive approach and notes how the Gottman Institute applies these insights, providing training for couples and therapists to refine relationship dynamics.

Kim underscores a pivotal finding from Gottman’s research: it’s not the presence of disagreements in relationships that’s problematic but rather how they are addressed. Gottman’s identification of the “four horsemen” is central to this conversation.

The first, criticism, involves attacking a partner’s character rather than addressing specific issues. For instance, a minor oversight like not buying coffee could evoke a broad criticism like, “You never think of anyone but yourself.” Roger chimes in, suggesting that such criticisms make the recipient feel devalued and defenceless. A more constructive strategy is voicing complaints about specific behaviours without resorting to personal attacks. Gottman’s concept of “soft startups” versus “harsh startups” becomes relevant here, advocating for calm complaint addressing as opposed to launching into accusations.

The podcast then moves to the second horseman: contempt. Described as an intensified form of criticism, it involves more malicious actions like sarcasm, sneering, or mimicking. Roger candidly confesses to occasionally displaying behaviours like eye-rolling, unintentionally making Kim feel trivialized. Kim deepens the discourse, noting that contempt stems from a sense of superiority and can breed feelings of worthlessness and isolation in the victim. This harmful attitude is further exacerbated by resentment and belligerence, which Kim explains can emerge from unresolved tensions.

Transitioning to the third horseman, defensiveness, Rog outlines how individuals may present themselves as victims, shunning responsibility, often as a reflex to criticism. Kim adds a nuanced perspective, acknowledging that societal dynamics and past experiences might make certain individuals, especially women, more prone to defensiveness. Yet, she notes the importance of recognizing its counterproductive nature. Kim and Rog highlight the interconnectedness of criticism, contempt, and defensiveness, noting how they can cyclically exacerbate each other.

Addressing the fourth horseman, stonewalling, Rog shares his past tendencies to withdraw from confrontations, leaving Kim feeling sidelined. Kim emphasizes that stonewalling usually emerges after repeated bouts of the other three horsemen, causing emotional distance between partners.

The episode wraps up with Kim and Roger providing actionable countermeasures:

Criticism: Opt for a soft startup, focusing on specific issues without attacking a partner’s character.

Contempt: Cultivate a culture of gratitude, acknowledging small gestures of kindness.

Defensiveness: Embrace responsibility, seeking to understand complaints and acknowledging one’s role in them.

Stonewalling: Take deliberate breaks during heated arguments, clearly communicating the need to do so.

In their closing remarks, Rog underscores the importance of recognizing these detrimental patterns as the first step towards relationship enhancement. Kim iterates that fostering these skills is a continuous journey, urging listeners to use self-awareness as a foundation for improvement.

Post-conversation, it’s essential to review how the talk went.

Reflecting on the conversation helps in acknowledging and appreciating the effort both partners made. This metacognition (thinking about thinking) makes both partners more intentional about improving their communication.

Celebrate small successes and milestones in communication. This positive reinforcement increases the chances of more constructive conversations in the future.

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To learn more about Kim & Rog's story and what inspired them to start their podcast.