Speaking of his life experience Nelson Mandela wrote ‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid but he who conquers that fear’.

And fear has as I know from my clients been high on their agendas over the past six months – and now with second waves and local lockdowns appearing, it is clear that those in government and the media will once again be using fear to seek to control our actions and activities.  The problem of course is that once you let the genie of fear out of the bottle, it can easily begin to run riot in a number of directions.

Anger and frustration can so easily boil over when we are frightened.  To face our fears rather than trying to hide from them is as Nelson Mandela reminds us a much better way forward but it is so easy to miss that perspective in the midst of lockdown.  Rather than addressing our feelings, it is sometimes easier to explode, displacing our feelings of anger and frustration onto something or someone close to us.

And nowhere can all of this be felt more sharply than in a couple’s relationship and it is this that we have been encountering regularly over the last six months at Coupleworks.  Good communication between each other can so easily become a casualty of the emotions generated by lockdown and it is this, that often needs to be restored as a priority in a relationship.

The renowned relationship expert and best selling author John Gottman has been studying the predictors of divorce over several decades. He describes the latter as ‘The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse’ as far as relationships are concerned and lists them as being criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.

Unpacking these a bit further.

  1. Criticism is an attack on your partner at the core of their character.  In that context it is not the sort of complaint that is part of every relationship – ‘I was scared when you were back so late when we’d agreed to eat together and you didn’t even bother to text me’ but rather ‘the problem with you is that you always think about yourself and I never get a look in’.
  2. Contempt – this goes far beyond criticism and uses every weapon in its armoury – sarcasm, ridicule, mimicry etc. to denigrate or belittle a partner whilst implicitly or explicitly appealing to your own moral superiority or giftedness.
  3. Defensiveness – this is often a reaction to criticism and most frequently shows itself in trying to make your partner responsible for your own shortcomings or mistakes.  In other words it’s when you imply that it’s always their fault and never your own.
  4. Stonewalling – this Gottman notes occurs most frequently as a response to contempt.  The listener simply withdraws from the interaction, shuts down and stops responding. Whilst that may be an understandable and necessary response on occasion to have it as a default position ends up severely damaging any relationship.

Our problem currently is that the pressures generated by lockdown can easily exacerbate any or all of these.

Happily as Gottman goes on to argue, there are antidotes for each of them, which can be used to restore relationships.

As an antidote to Criticism use a ‘soft or gentle start-up’. Instead of saying ‘you’ all the time, talk about yourself and your feelings in the first person..  ‘I feel’ and ‘I need’ are the route to avoiding criticism of the other.

As an antidote to Contempt build a Culture of Appreciation and Respect by saying small words of appreciation, gratitude and affection frequently.  This builds a culture of appreciation that acts as a barrier to contempt.  5:1 is the magic ratio of positive to negative interactions for a healthy relationship.

As an antidote to Defensiveness take responsibility. Acknowledge where you’ve made a mistake or let your partner down rather than trying to shift the responsibility on to them.

As an antidote to Stonewalling use Physiological Self-Soothing. Calming down in the heat of an argument helps enormously.  There are few things better to do that physiologically than simply taking time out, doing some deep breathing, stopping thinking about what you’ve been arguing about and doing something that soothes you.  Practising that and acknowledging that’s what you need to do has been shown to be a great way forward.

Four horsemen and four antidotes:  all of them familiar but also in the case of the latter freely available for maintaining and restoring communication in relationships.  COVID and the fears associated with it, Gottman would argue, does not need to have the final say and from my work and the views expressed by my colleagues at Coupleworks, that is something I have seen being worked out in practice time and again.

Sarah Fletcher