Why a Relationship can Breakdown

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Three times this week (so far) I’ve spoken with people in various stages of relationship breakdown.  No, hold on, it’s actually more than that.  Some are serious, some are just nuisance issues, but relationships are breaking down all the same.  Plus, I’m writing this on a Tuesday, so clearly this is an issue we all struggle with.

Dr. John Gottman came up with the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ that predict relationship breakdown.  (Incidentally, this is a phrase found in the Bible; he didn’t come up with the title, nor did Clint Eastwood)

Gottman meant it in the context of romantic relationships, but it applies to really any relationship – romantic, family, business partnership, or co-worker.

So, do you want to stay married/employed?  Do you want your new partnership to work out?  Do you want to have healthy family relationships?  I’m assuming the answer to that is a yes, so read on to discover the ‘four horsemen’ and learn the antidotes to them as well:

The Four Horsemen (Relationship breakdown factors)

  • Criticism – verbally attacking a person’s personality or character
  • Contempt – attacking a person’s sense of self with the intention to hurt or abuse
  • Defensiveness – denying any responsibility for subjects that arise during conflict
  • Stonewalling – withdrawing as a way to avoid conflict and convey distance, disapproval and separation

How do you score yourself against this list?    Do you find yourself defaulting to some of these behaviors?  If so, try using their antidotes instead:

Antidotes to the Four Horsemen:

  • Criticism:  Complain without blame.  Don’t say ‘yes, but.’  Instead try ‘yes, and.’  Make a specific request about which behavior that you would like to see changed.
  • Contempt:  Build a culture of appreciation.  Focus on your partner’s positives.  Express your own feelings and needs.
  • Defensiveness: Take responsibility.  Instead of blocking, say, “Tell me more.”  “Help me understand.”  “Please elaborate.”  Listen.  Take responsibility – we all have areas of weakness.  Don’t be shocked or offended that you do too.
  • Stonewalling: Lean in to the issue, not away from it.  Take time to lick your wounds and process your thoughts, then set a time to re-engage.  i.e. “I need to process – I’ll be back in an hour.”

The greatest obstacle to healthy relationships is always self-centeredness.  That’s when you don’t care enough to put the other person first, and yourself second.  Love is not a feeling you have about or toward someone else.  It’s an action word.  Love is a verb.

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Written by Trevor Throness
Trevor is a veteran coach, keynote speaker, and the author of the book “The Power of People Skills” released by Career Press NY in 2017. He’s also written for or been featured in places like Forbes, Inc, The NY Post, The Globe and Mail, Entrepreneur, CEO Magazine, and numerous podcasts and interviews.


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