In the recent months some of us were working from home and not able to go out to restaurants, may have had kids at home, couldn’t get to the gym. People have been telling me that their partners are getting on their nerves or the things that they have been avoiding in their relationships can longer be side stepped. Of course other couples may have already been really distressed before the lockdown happened and now they are talking about separation. Our current circumstance can cause some distress and conflict as we have all been under more stress and not able to have our daily routines that help us all stay on track. Since we are in the same boat for a while longer, it might be a good idea to take steps that will keep your relationship on course and possibly make it stronger.
Avoid the 4 Horsemen which breakdown relationships!
The first one is criticism this is defined by a judgement of your partner’s character. This includes a lot of all or nothing comments and ways of thinking about issues that include words like you always…you never…During this time you may be more focused on your partner’s flaws yet avoiding conflict. All the build-up of anger and frustration can lead to resentment which you may express by criticizing your partner. This can also lead to blowing up and not feeling good about yourself.
The second horseman is stonewalling. This behavior is about shutting down and avoiding. People who stonewall will often stop communicating with their partner with the exception of making negative comments. They turn away from resolution. This behavior leaves the other person feeling alone in a relationship which causes distress and a lack of attachment. If we are already not able to do some of our daily practices and we are more stressed financially and emotionally, stone walling just fuels the anxiety.
The third horseman is defensiveness which is often a counterattack for criticism. People use this as a strategy to protect themselves from feeling like a victim. For some people, it activates their story of being unworthy or not good enough which is often a wound from their childhood. They may not be able to esteem themselves and listen to their partner’s concerns. This behavior helps a person avoid responsibility for their behavior that maybe contributing to their difficulties.
Finally, the last horseman is contempt. When we get to this stage, the other 3 horsemen have been in full swing for a while. This is when we are not respecting or even listening to our partner anymore. This is often a stage when couples are considering separation.
So how do we turn things around?
The therapist who came up with the 4 Horsemen is named John Gottman and he has studied relationships for many years. One of the biggest predictors of divorce is these 4 behaviors which push people away and don’t create safety or security in a relationship. So what do we need to do to turn this crisis into an opportunity?
1)So a lack of relationship skills: Not being open to finding solutions and not admitting any fault for relationship breakdown. Paying closer attention to how we communicate our feelings “Gentle start ups” Be prepared to listen without judgement and deal with our anger before we sit down to face the issues. We can’t resolve issues when there is too much anger and reactivity.
2)Make sure you are having positive interactions with your partner. Aim for 5 to 1, in regards to your interactions. This might be communicating “appreciation,” warm hugs, time together, positive conversation etc.
3)Use “I statements” when you communicate your needs and feelings and start with describing the situation without judgement. If your partner doesn’t validate you, disengage from the conversation and let them know you just wanted them to know your feelings. Yet remember, Couples really need to learn to listen and validate their partner’s feelings even if they see things differently. Stay out of judgement!
4)Make sure you still take time for self-care during these uncertain times. It is hard to be responsive when we are not taking care of ourselves. If we have trauma in our history, we especially need healthy practices to help with our body systems. I call it “issues in the tissues” This includes moving our body for at least 20 min a day, eating healthy non-processed foods (this impacts anxiety/brain), deep breathing/meditation, being creative and expressing our thoughts verbally (not losing our voice) and finally journaling to help us understand our feelings and get them on paper.
5)During this time we need to create new routines and structures especially if everyone is at home. We need quality couple time. We also need time apart. Give each other time to work on individual hobbies and take turns looking after kids or other family members in the home.
6) Finally talk about safety. Have conversations about safety during this time and what it means for both of you. Remember that some people have had more unsafe things happen in their life, so we need to be patient and care about our partner’s needs. Come up with a plan to keep yourself and other people in your household safe.