As a young girl whenever I heard my parents fighting I felt anxious, worried that something awful might happen, that the tension would never go away and our home would become an unbearable place. However, when I got married my husband and I also had our fair share of fights. My parents were devoted to each other and had a solid marriage and so did we. Still, for many years I wondered whether fighting had somehow harmed our relationship.
That is why I was happy to find, quite a while ago, the research of the psychologist John Gottman on couples and relationship. It started with an article with the curious name “The Science of Good Marriage,” By Barbara Kantrowitz and Pat Wingert in Newsweek (1999) which describes Gottman’s work.
Contrary to my suspicions, and to those of the writers of the article, who declare that it is an “unexpected conclusion,” Gotman claims that although many popular therapies aim at defusing anger between spouses, it is not the most destructive emotion in a marriage, since both happy and miserable couples fight.
Gottmans finds that the real predictors for couples’ divorce or separation are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. He terms those negative types of behavior the "Four Horsemen of Apocalypse”.
Coming from an Israeli culture where being critical is valued, as it is believed to be the antonym of being hypocritical, it was hard for me to accept that criticism could harm a relationship. I had to listen to Gottman’s own words in a lovely short talk on those "Four Horsemen of Apocalypse" on Youtube, to be convinced.
Gottman defines criticism as stating the problem in the relationship as a defect in the person. He states that being critical is diagnosing the partner's personality defects and wanting to be appreciated for doing so :i.e. thanking the partner for pointing out all the ways in which one is failing as a human being.
In a similar fashion, Gottman defines, explains and illustrates the other three “demons”: defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. Some of his vivid demonstrations are uncomfortably familiar. What I find most disturbing in those patterns of behavior is that unlike fighting which is short-lived and dynamic, they seem like tactics in a war of attrition: calm, calculated, not at all dramatic, and with no resolution in sight. As indicated by its name, the weapon of "stonewalling" for example -- impenetrable and unresponsive-- is therefore frozen and static
The word drama in Greek means to do, to perform, when we fight we act and perform in order to bring about change. But if it involves contemptuous comments, for example, then fighting stops being a healthy way of resolving conflicts and moves into the realm of the apocalypse.
I believe that, like any other type of performing art, fighting could be taught. Moreover, Gottman’s "Four Horsemen" are useful stage instructions to direct us where not to step if we wish to conduct a productive and fair fight. The title of the article in Newsweek is "The Science of Good Marriage," but don't you feel that being in a relationship is actually an art?
PS. A link to the article "The Science of Good Marriage":