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February 14, 2018

The horsemen of failed relationships

By Sherry Ford, professor of communication studies

Guest Column, published Feb. 14, 2018 in the Shelby County Reporter 


Here we are again—at that date on the calendar that reminds us to express love and appreciation to our special someone.

Valentine’s Day just wouldn’t be Valentine’s Day if not accompanied by complex dinner plans, decadent chocolates and the stress associated with writing just the right love note.

We pour so much effort into one day’s expression of love, but often neglect to recognize the impact of the tiny, day-to-day messages we send to our romantic partners.

Why should we concern ourselves with those everyday interactions? Studies, including the 80-year Harvard Study of Adult Development, indicate that the greatest contribution to our sense of well-being is our close, long-lasting relationships, including our strong romantic connections.

As the special day of love approaches, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the value of communicating in ways that maintain our love relationships year-round and to be aware of the signs that a relationship is in need of extra special care.

Studies that explore signs of relational struggle give us what John Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

These four indicators of relationship distress spiral one into the other and can spell the demise of the relationship.

The first is criticism. Criticism targets the relational partner, indicating the partner is somehow defective. To work through difference is part of the relational process, but criticism personalizes the complaint in a damaging way.

These criticisms can lead to the next Horseman, defensiveness. Defensiveness often sounds like counter-criticism—“it is not my fault, it is yours.” There we are, going on and on about how deficient the other is.

The third Horseman is contempt. This one, research suggests, is the most corrosive of the Horsemen. Contempt indicates that we see the other person as inferior. Most of us do not respond well to being told we are “less than.”

With contempt building in a relationship, the fourth horseman is likely to emerge: stonewalling. At this point, we become physically or psychologically disengaged from our partner, which contributes to relational distancing.

So what can you do to prevent the four horsemen from arriving on the doorstep of your most important relationship? One of the basic elements of relationship survival is engaging in simple maintenance.

Most of us know that a car requires regular maintenance or its condition diminishes, sometimes beyond repair. The same is true for relationships. Communication scholars who explore pro-social habits that help sustain relationships note the importance of communicating openly and positively, assuring our partners that we value them and see a future with them.

Five positive messages can help protect a relationship against the negative impact of a single complaint. These communication practices, when employed on a regular basis and expressed sincerely, can help prevent feelings of being taken for granted or undervalued.

Yes, there’s something special about the grand gestures that embody Valentine’s Day.

But let’s not forget the tiny, daily expressions that can lead us to and help us maintain the kinds of close, intimate relationships that contribute to a life well lived.