There are a lot of reasons why new parents struggle when it comes to raising kids, and most of the time, the reasons are right there in front of them.
Imagine that you’re living on only a few hours of sleep per night. You feel confined to your home and your new baby has been crying for hours. At that moment, your spouse angrily calls you selfish. Feeling attacked, you fight back and the conversation quickly escalates.
This exchange of criticism is one of four science-backed predictors of relationship decline. Research from the Bringing Baby Home Program by Dr. Gottman reveals that new parents who regularly engage in these types of behaviors have a more difficult transition to parenthood.
The four predictors of relationship demise are what Dr. Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
They include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. So what do these four catastrophic behaviors look like and how can new parents avoid them?
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Criticism is different than a complaint. It attacks your partner’s character, indicating that their personality is somehow “flawed.” It also removes your responsibility for the problem and puts it all on your partner. In heterosexual relationships, women tend to criticize more than men.
Some examples of criticism include:
- “You always leave the dishes in the sink.”
- “You never come home on time.”
- “What is wrong with you?”
- “You’re so selfish.”
Want to know how you can criticize the right way? Read Transforming Criticism into Wishes: A Recipe for Successful Conflict
Contempt is a general feeling of disrespect or apathy about your significant other. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce according to Dr. Gottman’s work.
Examples of contempt include:
- “You would forget your head if it weren’t attached to you”
- “I always have to pick up the slack because you don’t do it as good as me.”
- “You’re an idiot.”
- “Oh honey, you’re such a ditz.”
- “You’re lazy and worthless.”
Defensiveness is used to protect yourself from feeling attacked or blamed. The problem with defensiveness is that it escalates the argument and makes it difficult to come to a resolution.
Some examples of defensiveness include:
- Denying responsibility
- Making excuses
Stonewalling happens when you feel overwhelmed. You simply shut down, withdraw from the interaction, or walk away. 85% of stonewallers in Dr. Gottman’s lab were men.
Examples of stonewalling include:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Refusing to engage in the discussion
- Ignoring your partner
Have you ever stonewalled your partner, or experienced stonewalling yourself? Read Chronic Stonewalling Imprisons a Relationship
The key to overcoming the Four Horsemen is to recognize that you’re engaging in patterns that could damage your relationship.
Every relationship has problems, conflicts, and challenges. Catching them early on and being able to shift gears to healthier alternatives is imperative in order to let the relationship thrive. Typical stressors that new parents face involve childcare, household chores, money and finances, balancing career and family, and extended family members.
Discussing difficult topics in a loving and supportive way helps alleviate tension and heightened stress, and builds a relationship that is intimate and fun.
Try the following steps to help manage conflict:
1. Soften your start-up
The first three minutes of a conversation determines how it will end. Conversations that start using any one of the Four Horsemen go downhill quickly. Raising issues in a gentle way create more positive results.
Examples of a softened start-up: “Can we talk about something that’s been troubling me?” or “You’re always so helpful. I really appreciate that about you. I have some concerns and want to discuss them. Is now a good time?”
Wondering how to manage conflicts in your relationship? Read Help Your Partner Understand Your Side of the Conflict in 3 Steps