Are relationships really that important? Is it possible to live your life without relationships? There are times when relationships feel harder to have than others. When we are fighting about something we feel is important or when someone has hurt us, relationships feel especially difficult. Relationships are a necessity of life. There are very few things we do or places we go that we are not in some form of relationship with someone else. Of course, the level of intimacy and commitment varies depending on what we are doing. Healthy relationships can offer us support, health, and connection.
Harvard University has run one of the longest research studies which has followed 724 men since the 1930’s revealed that relationships are the secret to a life well lived. Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of The Harvard Study of Adult Development stated, “Our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships, with family, with friends, with community.” This study which gathered health, lifestyle, and occupational information about these men showed that relationships were even more important than health and other lifestyle factors.
Given the knowledge that relationships are such an important factor of our well-being, you might be wondering what can be done to improve the relationships in your life. Dr. John Gottman has been studying intimate relationships for the last 40 years. He has what he calls the four horses of the apocalypse which are four different behaviors which when found together in a relationship can lead with a high level of predictability to divorce. Those behaviors are contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Contempt is defined as using words or behavior with the intent to abuse or damage the other’s sense of self. This would be using a statement to define the other person’s thoughts, feelings, or behavior. An example of this could be “You are so stupid! What were you thinking?” The antidote to contempt is appreciation. No one has the right to define anyone else or decide who they are. Just appreciate who they are and accept that your thoughts are not their thoughts and you are not better nor less than they are.
Criticism is defined as a statement that verbally insults or blames the partner. It is not the same thing as a complaint. Complaining is an “I” statement that shares with the other person something that is disliked or preferred, such as, “I don’t like it when you come home late without calling.” A criticism usually begins with “you”, such as, “You always come home late and you never call!” The antidote to criticism is to use an “statement” followed by a positive need. An example of that is “I don’t like it when you come home late without calling. I need you to call and let me know that you will be late.”
Defensiveness is deflecting any blame or responsibility to protect ourselves from a perceived attack. It is a very natural way to react and takes some practice to avoid using defensiveness in our relationships. The antidote to defensiveness is to be receptive to another person’s perspective and apologizing for whatever we feel we can take responsibility for. It is a rare occurrence when there is nothing that we could apologize for in a situation.
Stonewalling is defined as creating distance to convey disapproval or avoid disagreements. While for some individuals, there is a natural shutting down process that occurs because of the high levels of stress and anxiety that can happen in a conflict. There are indicators in the body that can let you know this is occurring. The indicators are an increase in heartrate, breathing faster, feeling flushed, clenching of fists or jaw, or a sense of being overwhelmed. These indicators add up to being physiologically flooded. While it is a natural process, if it happens repeatedly, it can become a habit. To break this habit, it is important to become aware of the indicators and call for a break. It takes about 20 minutes to calm the system to resume the conversation. The break needs to be defined by both partners with an agreement of when the conversation will resume.
Learning how to evict the four horsemen from your relationships will most certainly improve your quality of life. Life can be difficult and can really throw some difficult things our way. Developing our relationship skills can improve our quality of life and the ability to lean into our family, friends, and community when things get tough.