This beautiful quote reminds us that we can appreciate the roses with the thorns. What exactly happens to our physical, emotional and mental state and within our relationships when we are able to shift from the nasty thorns to the beauty of the roses, from dissatisfaction and negativity to appreciation?
John M. Gottman, the author of “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”, uses different markers to predict whether a marriage has longevity or not. Arguing itself is not the problem, but rather how couples argue. If we have built a strong loving friendship, of mutual trust and appreciation, we can disagree respectfully and with good humour and we are less likely to experience stress. However, certain kinds of interactions with each other are so lethal that Gottman calls them the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
When our needs aren’t met in the relationship, we need to speak up, express our feelings and complaints, and request a particular change. A complaint focuses on a specific behaviour or event. Criticism, on the other hand, is global and expresses negative feelings or opinions about the other person’s character or personality. Criticism is understood as blame. It for example sounds like this: ”Why do you never help me? I am always alone with the kids. You just don’t care. You are lazy and selfish.”
A complaint on the other hand, could sound like this: “I would like to talk about putting the kids to bed. I am tired at the end of the day and frustrated because I feel alone with this task. I understand that it’s harder for you to put them to bed because they are more used to me, so can we please talk about how you can help me? Could you give them their bath and I read the good-night story?”
The second horseman originates from a sense of superiority over the partner. When my partner triggers me into contempt and judgment, it is helpful to ask what shadows are showing up for me. What energy is the other person showing up with and what is my relationship with that particular energy? Feeling superior over our partner and expressing it by eye rolling or contemptuous remarks, especially when sarcasm, mockery or hostile humour are used is a form of disrespect.
It is sometimes challenging not to respond to a certain trigger in our partner with frustration, but contempt is poisonous for any relationship. When we notice it, we need to reign ourselves in and focus on everything our partner is good at and capable of. Rather than seeing them as defective, we need to keep their behaviour apart from who they are. We can instead concentrate on everything that we like and love about them.
Defensiveness is an understandable response to criticism, but unfortunately not a productive one. It is a way of blaming our partner. If we insist on being the “innocent victim” or on being right, we have already lost the game. There are no winners in the game of right and wrong. Defensiveness, whether in the form of whining, explaining, or getting angry, just escalates the conflict. The only way to win is by taking responsibility for our words and actions.
Criticism, contempt and defensiveness can lead to one partner tuning out and disengaging. In a typical conversation between two people, the listener gives cues that he is paying attention, for example eye contact, nodding of the head, other facial expressions, short noises to indicate they are listening. The stonewaller tends to look away without a sound, like an impassive stone wall. To the talker, it seems like the stonewaller doesn’t care.
The person stonewalling, however, might respond to feeling flooded with overwhelming emotions of feeling shell shocked or defenseless. Unfortunately, trying to avoid a fight by not responding is also a way of avoiding the relationship issues. 85% of the time, stonewalling is a male behaviour. The reason lies in our evolutionary heritage.
In prehistoric times, the females were nurturing the children and the males were responsible for hunting and protection. Females biologically needed to be able to calm and soothe themselves quicker to be able to produce enough milk to nurse the young children. For the early hunters however, vigilance was a key survival skill. They were more likely to survive when their adrenaline was high and remained high.
Biologically, men have a harder time to soothe and calm themselves when there is a conflict. Their heart rate and blood pressure stay accelerated for longer. Based on these evolutionary differences, it is not all that surprising that men are less likely to initiate a talk which could lead to a confrontation than women and more likely to become defensive and stonewall to avoid it. Frequently feeling flooded leads to emotional distancing and to feeling lonely.
In a love relationship, we are in each others care. It does not matter why our partner is in distress, or whether we agree with the stress or not; it is our job to relieve the stress for our partner and to take turns doing this for each other.
Emotions like fear, anxiety, impatience, frustration and anger are energetically depleting emotions. The same applies to emotions like despair, grief, depression, sadness and loneliness. Renewing emotions, on the other hand, boost our resilience to stress, improve problem solving skills and increase our intuition and creativity. We are then able to have productive talks with our partner.
Joy, appreciation, gratitude, peace, forgiveness, compassion and love are all renewing emotions. These emotions positively affect our heart rate, lower our cortisol level and increase the hormone DHEA, which is linked to different anti-aging benefits like less inflammation, improvement of bone density and muscle mass, less depression and mood swings, better cognitive functions, weight loss, heart health, balanced blood sugar and increased sexual functions.
A daily practice of going into a heart coherent state helps us to relieve our stress greatly and to quickly re-balance our mind, our emotions and our physical body. The results are that we are less reactive, able to think more clearly and able to solve problems from the more advanced parts of our brain.
Heart coherence is achieved through heart focused breathing. Just imagine you are breathing in and out through the centre of your chest for 5 seconds on the inhale, 5 seconds on the exhale. Breathe at least three breath cycles in and out through your heart centre. Continue to breathe this way and bring up heart-felt feelings in the centre of your chest. Connect with a memory which is full of love, laughter, joy, peace, appreciation or gratitude. Relive the memory, feel it. Stay in this coherent heart state for at least ten minutes. You can practice this with your eyes open and in different situations in life, for example when you are walking down the street or driving in traffic. It is important to be in coherence in every day life, not just when we are going into meditation or are in solitude. Next time you have a difference of opinion with your partner, it will be easier to drop into your heart. You can then speak and listen from that loving heart place.
If you are enjoying my articles, you can follow Greendoor to receive an e-mail notification whenever I post a new blog. All you need to do is to click the “follow” button in the right-hand corner of your screen.
Relationship and Belief Change Coaching