Episode 58 Four Relationship Killers

Four Relationship Killers and What to Do About Them

There are definite road signs that signal trouble in a family. They start gradually and then begin to build up over time. If you leave them unchecked, they take over and can kill the relationships.

These signs are taken from Dr. John Gottman at the Gottman Institute. He calls them the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

  • Criticism
  • Contempt
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling

Find out how these relationship killers are showing up in your family and what you can do to begin solving them.

Gottman Institute

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Full Transcript

Tina Gosney  00:00

You’re listening to The Coaching Your Family Relationships Podcast, episode 58 “Four Relationship Killers and What to do About Them.”

Everyone has at least one difficult family relationship, the one that feels impossible. I’m Tina Gosney, a family relationship coach, I’ll help you with that impossible relationship so that you can feel better. Each week, I’ll give you some relationship tools, and two takeaways and one challenge. Knowledge, action and coaching working together can make a huge impact. Join me in this podcast, and we’ll tackle the hard part of that family relationship together.

Welcome back to the podcast, I want to just express some gratitude to you for a minute for tuning into this podcast week after week. And for sharing it with other people. You know, I know there’s so many options, and really great podcasts out there, I listened to a lot of them. I think there’s so much value in what people are sharing. I appreciate you giving me some of your time each week.

In last week’s episode called WAIT, which means “why am I talking” was about communication. And I talked about filtering through everything that you want to say through this lens of why am I talking? Why am I saying this? What’s my purpose? What do I want to have happen? Because I’m talking?

So really thinking about why am I talking? And why do you want to do this? Well, one of the reasons is because that that person that you’re talking to, they also are filtering through a lens. And we actually all filter through this lens of what is this person saying that? What does it mean about me? Like, what are you saying right now? And what does it mean about me? And if that person is feeling attacked, or an heard or they’re feeling talked at, instead of talked with, you know, that conversation is not going to go?

It’s very common for my clients to ask me how to have a conversation with somebody, someone that they’re really struggling to connect with, they really want to and they asked me things like, I don’t know how to say this without hurting them. Or when I try to talk, they automatically just shut me out before I even say anything.

Or sometimes they say, well, they take my words, and they make them mean something that I never even said. And it’s because they’re filtering. Everything through this. What does it mean about me, lens? Now, I think it’s pretty common for most people to feel like they don’t have really great communication skills.

I think it’s actually rare to have someone say, “Oh, I’m an expert at communicating.” That’s not something that you often hear somebody say, even if someone is an expert at communicating, most often, they can also always have something more to learn. So this is another episode on communicating because I know that it’s such a needed skill that so many of us are lacking, so easy to be a bad communicator, to be really bad at trying to say what you want to say, in the way that you want to say it.

I started studying body language a few years ago, I thought it was fascinating. I still am very fascinated by it. But one of the things that I think is so interesting to me about body language is that no matter what you say, no matter the words that are coming out of your mouth, your body, and your meta communication will give you a way. So you can say one thing, and your body can say another thing. And that’s the body language that people respond to not your words.

In fact, experts have said they’ve estimated that about between 70 and 93% of our communication is nonverbal. So just think about that for a minute. If it’s nonverbal. What is that? How is how are we communicating? Well, it’s through our body language. It’s through our tone of voices through meta communication, which is if you don’t know if you’re not familiar with what that is, it’s making eye contact, you know, engaging with somebody when they’re speaking to you with small little cues like, yeah, and things like that responding to the other person.

So the things that I’m going to talk about today, will be communicated through all three of these things. Were It’s body language, tone of voice or meta communication.

About 20 years ago, my husband and I were going through a really rough time in our marriage. And in fact, we had all four of these relationship killers present in our marriage in our relationship. We just had these, they were just like barreling right through the middle of our marriage. We had a lot of financial pressures, family pressures, job pressures coming down on us all at the same time. And we let all that stress and that pressure come into our relationship. And we began taking that stress out on each other.

And I remember the day that I said to him, “You know, if all we ever talked about our problems, then we have a problem relationship. And I don’t want to problem relationship.”

So you might recognize if you’re familiar with John Gottman and his work at the Gottman Institute, you might recognize what I’m talking about today. If you’re familiar with his work, so he’s considered one of the most like the foremost experts in marriage, parenting family relationships today. And he talks really about how we can give, we really need to give each other more compassion, and how we all deserve compassion in those relationships.

If you want to look up more about his work, there’s a link to his website in the show notes. I’ve read some of his books and followed the work at the Gottman Institute for a while now. And their approach to relationships, and how to handle the hard part of relationships really resonates with me. If you’re wanting to know more about what I’m going to say today, I highly recommend going to their website and taking advantage of some of the free resources that are available there.

Now, Dr. Gottman has identified several predictors of divorce. And I’m going to talk about one of these predictors this week. And he calls it the four horsemen. Now he calls it the four actually the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Because if you allow them into your relationship, and you allow them to just run free, not be checked, they become lethal.

Now, as I look at these, these horsemen, I think that they are true relationship killers. I don’t think these only apply to a marriage, I think they apply to all family relationships. In one way or another. I think they become more intense in marriage quite often. But I think they apply across the board in family relationships. Now, the Four Horsemen usually come in this order, but not necessarily sometimes you might see one or two of them show up at the same time.

Or you might go back and forth between two. But these are this is the order that they usually follow.

The first one is criticism.

Second is contempt.

Third is defensiveness.

And the fourth is stonewalling.

I’m going to talk about each one of these four horsemen, these relationship killers, what they look like how they show up. And then we’re going to talk about what we can do about them. So the first one is criticism. And there’s really no such thing as constructive criticism. Let’s just get that out of the way. Right off the bat, you’re not always going to agree with the people that you live with, you’re not always going to agree with people that you don’t live with.

But there’s going to be more opportunities for you to disagree with the people that you live with. So there’s going to be actually time that you have deep disagreements. But there’s a difference between expressing a complaint and criticizing someone. And the key difference is in the language that you use, the language that you use actually indicates how you’re thinking.

And the thinking is usually the source of the problem. So when you’re expressing a complaint to someone, it focuses on the problem. It stays away from accusatory language, it focuses on how you feel about the problem. And then you tell the person what you want to have happen.

So let’s just say that you have an agreement with your your child, your 18 year old daughter that she needs to fill up the car with gas when she takes it before she brings it back. But she brought it back empty. You could say you didn’t fill up the car with gas and we agreed that when you drive the car, you’ll fill it up before you bring it back home. So could you go fill it up tomorrow?

That’s a complaint. It focuses on the problem. It focuses on how you’re feeling about it, ask the problem to get resolved, tells the person what you want to have happen as a result of this complaint but a criticism is very different. It focuses on the person, it makes a global sweeping statements. Actually, it attacks the person and their character, it puts labels on them.

It’s a very accusatory. So in that same sense, in that same situation, a criticism would be something like, You didn’t put gas in the car, like you said you would. And now I have to do it, You’re so irresponsible, I’m always picking up the pieces when you don’t follow through, to hear how criticizing that is, how its global statements like you always do this. And it attacks your daughter as irresponsible, puts a label on her as irresponsible.

Now, the common phrases that you’ll find in a criticism are global statements like you always and you never, and you’re so and then there’s something that we kind of often will tack on to the end of a seemingly innocent, maybe an observation or a statement. And that is the phrase, well, what’s wrong with you? Sometimes it’s just added on to something that so innocent, but then you tack on though, what’s wrong with you. And it doesn’t become so innocent anymore, it becomes an attack.

I remember when a family member said those exact words to me 30 years ago, and how much it hurt. And you know, so many people down in their very core are already telling themselves, that there’s something wrong with them. And to have somebody else say it out loud, can be very, very damaging to a person, I want you to think about the difference between a complaint and criticism and how body language and tone of voice would be different between the two.

So a complaint, you’re keeping it focused on the problem and not the person, your body language is probably going to be more relaxed, probably more open, your arms are not going to be crossed, your hands might be down at your side, you might be using your hands to talk like a lot of people do. Your tone of voice is going to be light and probably not strained. For criticism, your body language, you might have crossed arms, your eyes might be kind of narrowed, and your lips might be tight.

Maybe you take a wide stance with your arms on your hips and puffing up your chest, which is a very intimidating body stance, your tone of voice is probably going to be raised and maybe a little sharp, maybe your words come out a little bit sharp, it’s probably pretty common for most of us to fall into criticizing without even realizing it.

So if you’re seeing yourself there, I don’t want you to beat yourself up doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible person, or that you’re really you know, your relationship or your marriage is gonna fall apart. Just good to recognize that this is the first horseman and you might want to stop it where it is, or just be more aware of what you’re doing. Because if you allow that negativity to creep in further and further into your relationship, over time, it leads to contempt and that’s the next Horseman is contempt.

Now, contempt really comes from this sense of superiority over the other person, your intent is to insult them. It’s very disrespectful. You see this in a marriage or in a relationship when one person begins to treat the other person like they aren’t as capable as them.

Like they’re a person that has to be managed and watched over because they just can’t manage things on their own. And contempt is fueled by negative thoughts about the other person that accumulate over time. And they just simmer, they sit there and they simmer. And they’re just waiting to come out in one form or another. You know, thoughts that simmer over time are just waiting to bubble up and explode. Just think like a pot of, of milk. Like if you put milk on the stovetop and simmer it?

Do you know, have you ever seen how fast you can just turn your back for just a minute and that milk is like overflowing all over onto your stove. So I like to think of these thoughts that simmer in our brains, just like this pot of milk on the stovetop that all of a sudden it just explodes and it comes over and it spills out all over everything.

And you’ll see this show up in judgments about a person and how maybe how they spend their money about how they spend their time how they’re generally being in the world. There’s a lot of judgment, a lot of manage the you can’t manage this. I need to do it for you because you’re not capable of it. That’s contempt and that leads to defense. sensitiveness from the other person, right? So when we get defensive, we’re feel like we’re being attacked. And often we will reverse the blame and put it on the other person in an attempt to protect ourselves.

Byron Katie says “Defense is the first act of war.”

I’ll just think about that. When you’re on the defense, you are trying to protect yourself. You start shifting blame, start putting up walls, you start collecting ammunition, you’re on the lookout for danger. All of these things happen when you’re defensive, your brain is looking out for danger. So it’s all it’s going to see as potential threats.

And even things that aren’t really threatening or weren’t meant to be threatening, are going to feel threatening, because that’s the lens that you’re looking at everything through. And defensiveness might look like saying things like, Why are you picking on me? Or I just can’t do anything to please you. I can’t do anything, right? Or, well, I’m not perfect, you know, the problem isn’t me. It’s you. You’ve done plenty of mean things to me too.

And maybe your body language shows condescension, and your tone of voice gets lower, or, or maybe more animated and directed. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, they don’t necessarily have to go in that linear order. But they do usually follow that order.

Sometimes they can get jumbled up all together in one interaction. Any one of those don’t do anything to resolve differences that we have with somebody. They do a lot to drive people away from each other from away from you. And what happens when we let those things take over? It’s pretty predictable.

And that’s what leads us to the fourth horseman is stonewalling. Now stonewalling is one person is eventually going to tune the other one out, they’re going to leave, they’re going to disengage from what feels like a lot of negativity. They’re going to withdraw to avoid conflict. Maybe they’re withdrawing to let you know that they disapprove.

Maybe they’re trying to send a message through silence, maybe they need to distance themselves also from the situation. In you know, in normal conversations, when you’re having a conversation with somebody, they’re going to look at you, they’re gonna give you little clues that they’re listening. Maybe they nod their head, they make eye contact, they say. But when someone is stonewalling, you don’t get any of that. They probably don’t look you in the eye, they probably look everywhere but your eyes. They might mutter something under their breath, or maybe not make any sound at all.

They literally sit like a stone wall. That’s where stonewalling gets its name. And they’re acting like they couldn’t care less about what you’re saying. Now, when someone is stonewalling you, or maybe you’re stonewalling another person, look at the feet, or the feet pointed towards you, or away from you. Our feet are really interesting because they always point in the direction that we go even when we’re not aware of that our feet are doing this.

And even when we’re not even moving might be sitting down somewhere Your feet are pointed in the direction that you want to go. If they’re pointed at a door or away from you, they are really wanting to leave and not interact with you at all. Now, if you’re the one stonewalling, be really interesting to watch your own feet and see what they do. Of course, when you’re watching out for something, often it changes. So just be aware of that.

Now my husband Micah and I were reading a marriage book together a few nights ago. And there was a couple in there who was being counseled by a therapist, and they were having the the book was detailing their argument about how their back and forth was going. All the things that they were saying to each other and how unkind and accusatory they were being towards each other.

And then Micah stopped reading and he said, “You know, if they didn’t care about each other, they wouldn’t be fighting. They would just leave. Fighting sometimes is actually showing that you still care about their relationship and you’re showing up for it.”

There’s a lot of wisdom there. stonewalling is a way of showing the other person you don’t care about the relationship anymore. And it’s much harder to deal with than fighting is. So stonewalling is really like a last horseman a last killer in a relationship. So good to notice that.

So how do you counteract these things if you’re noticing them in your relationships? And if you are, let’s just drop the judgment right now. Let’s just drop the lots of times we hear things like this and we want to look at ourselves often go, oh my goodness, I am just terrible. Look at me, I’m doing all these things, and this is killing my family relationships. But let’s just drop that judgment. Let’s just look at some action items that you can take.

So criticism, how do you counteract criticism? How do you begin a conversation who’s always going to dictate how the rest of the conversation goes? So a soft startup, think about how you start conversations, talk about your feelings and use I statements instead of you statements, and express what you need in a positive way.

And the second one contempt, how do you counteract contempt? Well remind yourself of this other person’s great positive qualities, go out of your way to find those great positive qualities, you know, our brains are designed, they are just programmed to look for the negative, because that’s what alerts us to danger keeps us alive longer. So to look for positive things has to be a conscious choice. But finding gratitude, finding positive things that have happened in the past, and probably in the present, you’ll be able to find them. If you look for them, you’ll be able to find them. But you have to look for them on purpose because they are there.

For defensiveness, accept responsibility. Remember that the other person sees things differently than you do. And actually, no one else in the entire world sees things exactly the same as you. So you are both looking at things very differently. And your acceptance of responsibility is accepting how you are seeing the world. And instead of preparing for war, put your armor down and apologize for your part in the situation. You don’t have to take responsibility for the other person’s part.

But when you break down the defensiveness, you can begin to see things more clearly. Including your own contribution to the situation. Now, apologizing is such an important thing in relationships. I’ve done a whole episode on apologizing. So I want you to go back and find that from a couple of weeks ago. Look and see what is an essential the essential ingredients of an apology, and how you can take responsibility for yourself.

And then finally stonewalling. How do you counteract stonewalling, while it’s a good idea sometimes to take a break, to go and do something else that’s unrelated to what you’re talking about. Or maybe what you’re not talking about. And go do something that distracts you from the conversation that was just trying to happen. Something that suits you. It’s a good, it’s sometimes really good to physically remove yourself from a conflict. And let your mind relax and let your nervous system then soothe and calm and come back to a more grounded state. It really helps you to break that cycle that might be pushing you into not even caring any more about their relationship type of situation.

And overarching all of these solutions is how are you thinking about this other person? If you are thinking about them, and having positive thoughts about them, these things are going to come naturally to you. Check in with your thoughts. How are you thinking about them? How are you viewing them? How are you labeling them in your mind that will help you to not fall into criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Because that is really the core of the issue here.

Take Away #1

Now Dr. John Gottman his philosophy is that as family members we are all capable of and we all deserve compassion. Think about how you can show compassion for family members. How do you do that? Think about bringing compassion into your thoughts and into your relationships.

Take Away #2

And the second one is your body is not going to lie. If you are feeling negatively thinking and feeling negatively towards another person, your body will feel closed off. It will feel tight. It will feel constrictive. It will feel really protective of you. It’s trying to protect you by doing that. If you’re feeling positively towards the other person and you’re thinking positive thoughts, your body is going to feel more open. You’re going to feel more settled and peaceful and grounded. If you’re going to have inviting body language, paying attention to your body is going to teach you so many things.


Here’s your challenge for the week. So most people are so disconnected from what is going on inside their bodies. And they just live up in their heads such a cognitive way that we have of living these days, that we don’t pay attention to the with wisdom of the body. So pay attention, how your body is feeling is affecting your life. And if you don’t even know where to start, you’re like most people. So here’s where you can begin. Just pick a day this week, check in with yourself in the morning, in the mid afternoon. And before you go to bed.

If you need to put an alarm on your phone, I have several alarms on my phone each day to remind me to do certain things. And still, after all this time of having these alarms on my phone. I’m still surprised like, oh, yeah, it’s three o’clock, I need to do this. But send alarm if you’re on your phone if you need to. And check in with yourself and ask you ask yourself, How does my body feel? Do a body check and see where is there any discomfort there? Is there any tightness? Are you holding stress somewhere? What do you notice.

And this is just a way to start getting you to notice what’s going on inside your body. Because I like I said before, we are so closed off to what is happening in our bodies. And we’re so living up in our minds, and it’s causing a lot of problems for us. But the more that you’re able to get in touch with what is happening in your body, the more you will notice the things that are happening in your body when you’re in the middle of a disagreement.

When you’re in the middle of maybe criticizing or receiving criticism, or any one of these four horsemen that I’ve talked about today. Our bodies have so much to teach us. But we’re so rarely listening. So start listening.

Twenty years ago, when Micah and I realized that we had a problem relationship, we decided that we needed to make some changes if we were going to stay married. And we put really specific boundaries and rules for ourselves that began moving us and our marriage and our relationship in a very different direction. And later this month, we were going to have our 32nd wedding anniversary.

Now I tell you that when we started making these changes, 20 years ago, it was really hard. And we’ve had a lot of ups and downs since then. And sometimes we’ve done a good job of being in this relationship and this marriage. And sometimes we haven’t done a great job. But the way that we deal with stress and the way that we talk to each other is much different now.

And we keep working on it. And we keep working on it with each other and with, we also work on this with our children, we have a long way to go. We’ve come a long way. But we still have a long way to go. And if you find that you have a problem relationship, it is possible to begin doing something different.

These four horsemen can be so sneaky and showing up in your family, you probably won’t even notice them. Because many of them are just the way that we’ve always dealt with each other. And so it’s hard to see that there’s even a problem, especially when it’s in your life, and it’s in your relationship. And it’s just the way that things have been always.

Or maybe you see signs. And now that you’ve listened to this podcast episode, you see little signs of the different things that I’ve talked about today, but you aren’t sure of how to implement the solutions or how to break that cycle. And I help people with this all the time, I help people with their most difficult relationship problems.

And I can help you too. And we can help you see how to apply these solutions to your relationships to your families, how to do the things that I’ve talked about on this podcast today.

And I have a few appointments that I offer each week, 50 minute appointments, to help to help you podcast listeners to start implementing the things that you’re learning. It’s only $25 for this 50 minute call. There’s no obligation to go any further. But we can do a lot in 50 minutes together. So to do this, I want you to go to https://tinagosney.com/apply. Now remember, I only take a few of these calls each month, make sure you schedule yours right now while you can.

I want you to remember that even if you didn’t learn these tools, when you were young, these tools that I’m teaching you now that it’s okay. Now is always the right time to start becoming the person you want to be. No matter what anyone else in your family is doing. Have a great week and I’ll see you next time