In my work, I often work with couples with a newborn or very young child. For many couples, the simple fact that they have gotten to the point where they are seeking counseling can be disheartening. But for couples with a newborn, it can be even more discouraging, as they feel like they “should be” enjoying their lives as new parents, delighting in their baby and each other. What they don't realize is that it is very common for a parental relationship to come under strain with the arrival of a baby. Aside from the joys of the miracle of bringing a child into the world, there are several new stressors as well, from maternal recovery and hormones, to sleep deprivation and the logistics of coordinating schedules and meeting each new unexpected challenge.
While it is important to have a strong relationship for couples themselves, it is equally important for the new child. In the words of John and Julie Gottman, “the greatest gift you can give your baby is a happy and strong relationship between the two of you.” In their studies of parent child interaction, the Gottmans found that irritability, hostility, and fighting led to poorer parent-child interaction. And when parents are less attuned to the baby's cues, signals that the baby is hungry or needs attention, for instance, the baby is at risk for underdevelopment of the neural pathways that underlay bonding and attachment.
Conflict and the resolution of conflict (or lack of resolution) is often the largest contributor to unease and disconnection in relationship, and so the purpose of this series is to present various tools for couples to navigate conflict. The Gottmans offer several tools in many of their books and the one we will focus on today is called “softened startup.” “Startup” is the moment when you bring up an issue with your partner. The way you approach this can be either “harsh” or “soft”, depending on the style, tone, and phrasing with which you approach the issue. The Gottmans estimate that the way you approach a conflict conversation has a direct effect on its outcome over 96% of the time. In their work, they identified what they have termed “the four horsemen”, four attitudes or stances that will poison the process and lead to arguing rather than resolution.
The Four Horsemen
1. Criticism – When we begin a conversation with criticism or blaming (i.e. “You're always late” or “you are an inconsiderate jerk”), it will usually push our partner into a defensive posture. Rather than hearing the complaint and being willing to engage or work on the problem, they will most likely fight back (“well, you never help around the house”), deny, or shut down.
2. Defensiveness – what happens when we feel criticized. You defend yourself.
3. Contempt- This is best represented by rolling your eyes. It implies a sense of disgust and superiority. This is one of the greatest predictors of separation or divorce.
4. Stonewalling – This is when we simply cut off all communication, refusing or avoiding discussion altogether. Unfortunately this usually results in our partner getting even more upset.
When these toxic behaviors are present, relationship has little chance of survival, Fortunately, as we begin to become aware of these, we can begin to make new choices. The Gottmans suggest various antidotes for each Horseman. For instance, with criticism, they suggest making a complaint rather than a comment on the partner's character (I feel frustrated when the garbage piles up,” as opposed to “You are so selfish, you never help out around the house.”) With contempt, they suggest regular expressions of appreciation and respect, both big and small. Creating an atmosphere of kindness, appreciation, and esteem goes a long way towards developing kinder interactions, the opposite of contempt.
For more information about softened startup or the four horsemen, check out www.gottman.com. In our next installment we will examine the role of accepting our partner's influence and the ways we might get in our own way.