Harmful Interaction Patterns – which do you do and what can help?

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Quick summary – Dr. John Gottman has done extensive research on the variables which affect a stable marriage (or committed relationship). He is able to predict with just over 90% accuracy if a couple will eventually divorce after as little as 5 minutes of observation. He isolated four interaction patterns (he calls them the 4 horsemen) which are potentially devastating to a relationship. The interaction patterns to work on are contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling.  Please note that we all engage in these interaction patterns… the harm is related to frequency, degree and the absence of reparation strategies and a firm relational foundation. You might not be aware that you are using any of these patterns… couples therapy can help increase your awareness of what interaction you tend to utilize (and why) and what you can do to improve the interactions in your relationship.

For more about Dr. Gottman you can visit – http://www.gottman.com/

Contempt – This is when a person displays distain, hatred, or disgust etc towards their partner. When someone is using contempt in an interaction he or she is attempting to belittle the person or to cause him or her psychological/emotional pain.

–         Behaviors include:

  • Personal insults (generally containing a generalization – “you are bad person” – “sure I’ll do that for you fatty.”
  • Sarcasm or hostile humor – “sure that will work because you are sooo good with money.” – “maybe we should call the restaurant and see if they will take a reservation for a dumbasses.”
  • mockery, commonly with body language – rolling of the eyes, laughing at a person for there mistake etc.

 

Stonewalling – this is intentionally ignoring a person or leaving the person without attempting a resolution (or offering a better time to work things out). The person often believes that they are helping by avoiding the conflict… the behavior leaves the other partner feeling alone, isolated, and helpless.

–         Behaviors include:

  • Leaving a conversation without informing the person – if and when you will come back – or why you are leaving the interaction (it is ok to say I need a minute to cool down I’ll be back in an hour).
  • Changing the subject – instead of listening to your partner you distract him/her with irrelevant subjects… the partner feels unheard and unimportant.
  • One word or emotionless answers – ex. “honey I am really concerned about our son… it hurts me that he’s acting up so much.” – response – “Fine” or “don’t worry about it.”

 

Criticism – This is the act of constantly judging and looking for fault in your partner. Criticism is an attack on the partner’s personality. This is the most confusing interaction as there is a thin line between informing your partner about your needs or opinions and criticizing your partner. Criticism involves judging a person while getting a need met involves judging a behavior. Ex. “You are a dirty person who never cleans up anything.” is a criticism.” “I would like it if you would please put your dishes away after you have used them.” is a way of getting a need met by directing the attention on a behavior.

–         Behaviors include:

  • Generalizations – “you always….”
  • Statements concerning a person and not a behavior – “you are a messy person.” instead of “you engage in this messy behavior.”
  • Looking for the bad instead of the good – the person will notice more bad things than good things. This is also extremely ineffective for changing behaviors. Always focusing your attention on faults or on the negative.
    • 5 – 1 rule (or 7 -1) – in order to change a behavior you should have five positive statements (reinforce what was done ‘correctly’ or in the right direction of the goal) to every one negative or corrective statement. Example: If someone is messy you should compliment 5 acts that were steps to improve messy behavior (thanks for cleaning your fork) for every one suggestion about how they behave messy (will you try to clean your fork after you use it).

 

Defensive – defensive is an act in which you essentially stop listening to your partner and start defending your subjective experience. When a person is being defensive they are not allowing themselves to be open to their partner’s individual opinion, thoughts or emotions. The interaction pattern serves to prove the other person is ‘wrong’ and their behavior serves as an attempt to avoid or defend from a perceived attack. The point is that most arguments are based on opinions – no one is right or wrong… therefore sometimes the only goal is to hear and to be heard by an open-minded and accepting partner.

–         Behaviors include:

  • Whining – “it is not fair.”
  • ‘No but’ or ‘yes but’ – “no but I had to because of the rain.”
  • Excuses – “I wouldn’t have done that if I had taken the class I wanted to take.”
  • Repeating yourself instead of listening.
  • Addressing a critique of a behavior with a critique of your own – “I might not do the dishes but you are the one wasting all our money on gasoline.”

 

Steps to interact well:

  • Appreciate that your partner has a right to his or her own beliefs and emotions.

 

  • Accept what your partner is saying … though you are not required to understand or to agree… “I accept that you see it that way though I still see it differently.”

 

  • Listen and try to care for your partner despite the fact that you have a difficult time with the subject.

 

  • Separate the subject from the person…he/she feels, behaves or thinks this way but the whole is greater (and more complicated) than the parts and I love him/her.

 

  • Remember that there is no resolution to around 70 -90% of all arguments as most arguments are based on individual perception or opinion.

 

  • Remind yourself that you love the person and it is perfectly fine to disagree.

 

  • Sometimes you need to agree to simply stop arguing… neither of you is right most of the time… as ‘right’ rarely exists.

 

  • Focus on behaviors and not on personalities – It is easier to behave differently than to ‘be’ differently.

 

  • Admit when you know that you are wrong… apologies beget apologies.

 

  • Reinforce repair attempts. Ex. if one of you says – “we’re just arguing for the sake of arguing I’m sorry.” thank them for healing the interaction.

 

  • Practice open-mindedness – “you may be right” “I want to understand you better”, ”I would like to see how you see it”

 

  • Self-awareness – know your role in the conflict … know what interaction pattern you tend to use… begin to explore how your interaction pattern is influencing your partners interaction pattern (stonewalling begets criticism as criticism begets stonewalling).

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

Argumentative? – substitute the word “but” for “and”

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Quick Summary – Are you Argumentative? Always use the conjunction “and” instead of the conjunction “but” to dramatically reduce defensiveness, to encourage harmonious conversation, and to increase your dialectic ability (which is basically open-mindedness).

I had a wonderful teacher in graduate school who would correct her students any time that they used the conjunction “but” in class. To some this was extremely annoying… to others (like myself) I found that this trick reduced my argumentative interactions to almost zero. There is almost no example that I can think of in which it would not be appropriate for you to switch the conjunctions. And the more you increase your dialectic ability (your ability to see that every issue has two sides – the old ‘there is two sides to every coin’ expression) the more evident it is that the word “but” creates a false dichotomy (black and white thinking – either/or thinking instead of both/and thinking) that is at the source of most arguments.

Example: a couple wakes up and has a day of errands… both are a bit cranky… it is 9:00 am in the morning. The wife says to the husband, “Honey I need to get to the bank before 12:00.” The husband responds, “But I need to get gas because the car is empty.”

An argument then begins… why? The word “but” made the interaction imply as if the statements were add odds with each other… to specify the word led them to believe that either the husband needed to get gas or the wife had to get to the bank by 12:00. The truth is that both statements were true and the only problem (the source of the entire argument) was the wording.

Substituting “but” for “and” example. The wife says to the husband, “Honey I need to get to the bank before 12:00.” The husband responds, “And I need to get gas because the car is empty.” the wife then respond, “ok.”

Feel how you respond to the examples below if you are not yet sold. For this exercise I want you to say the statements out loud or in your head and monitor how your body reacts.

These examples are all based on common dialogs.

“Honey I would love to go to the beach” response “But I am really hungry… I need to stop at a restaurant”

“Honey I would love to go to the beach” response “and I am really hungry… I need to stop at a restaurant”

“Let’s go take a swim” response “but I don’t want to get my watch wet”

“Let’s go take a swim” response “and I don’t want to get my watch wet”

“I would like to watch a movie sometime today” response “but I need to get some exercise”

“I would like to watch a movie sometime today” response “and I need to get some exercise”

And perhaps the most famous-

“I like the Democratic candidate for his views on the environment” response “but I think that the Republicans will help business owners.”

“I like the Democratic candidate for his views on the environment” response “and I think that the Republicans will help business owners.”

How does the “and” feel to you… can you see how the “but” makes statements seem mutually exclusive when they are not? Try it… I bet it will improve your relationships by reducing arguments.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.