I was shocked to see this past week that I’d never done an episode on the four most well-researched communication patterns that can predict a couple will divorce or end their relationship. And I talk about them in couples therapy all the time! These four have been written about extensively by the well-known pair of researchers John and Julie Gottman – and I think their work is right on target, given what I sadly see on a regular basis in my office. And I’ll offer the most recent ways these four distinct behaviors can appear in the modern partnership. Sadly, if you or your partner don’t see these things as problems, then that is a tremendous issue. But if you’re not aware of the danger of these, then you may not know the quicksand your relationship is in – and sinking fast.
The listener voicemail is from someone who was taught that everything in her life had to appear “perfect” – even saying that if someone comes over for dinner, there need to be five courses and the house has got to be spotless. That is truly a prison and she wants out! But… she lives in the same city as her mother – who taught her all this – and she fears moving away from those choices and what her mother’s reactions might be. I so love the questions y’all send in so keep them coming!
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My book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression is available here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life. And it’s available in paperback, eBook or as an audiobook!
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Dr. Margaret: This is SelfWork and I’m Dr. Margaret Rutherford. At SelfWork’ we’ll discuss psychological and emotional issues common in today’s world and what to do about them. I’m Dr. Margaret and SelfWork is a podcast dedicated to you taking just a few minutes today for your own selfwork.
Hello and welcome or welcome back to SelfWork. I’m Dr. Margaret Rutherford. I’m so glad you’re here. I hope you’ve enjoyed the last few interviews. I thought especially Dr. Priyanka Wali’s interview was really fascinating, a doctor and a comedian. She also just had some wonderful thoughts – that was last week. Hope you get a chance to listen to that if you haven’t.
I was commenting on an Instagram post the other day about someone giving their partner this silent treatment, which is something we all hear about. And I was looking for podcast episodes I’d done on marriage. I thought surely there’d be a whole bunch of them. And to my shock. I found ONE on stonewalling, but not much else. I was really looking for talking about problems in marriages that cause maybe divorce or something like that. And there are actually very well researched bad habits. There are four of them that can predict divorce.
So that’s the topic for today. These four have been written about extensively by the well-known pair of researchers, John and Julie Gottman, and I think their work is right on target, given what I sadly see on a regular basis in my office. We’ll focus on the Gottman’s four candidates and you can see what you and your partner may be guilty of. Sadly, if you or your partner don’t see these things as problems, then that itself is a tremendous issue. But if you’re not aware of the danger of these habits, then you may not know the quicksand your relationship actually could be in and you could be sinking fast.
Now, I’m not a researcher, but I’ll also add a few more thoughts of my own about what these look like in the modern 2023 relationships.
The listener voicemail is from someone who was taught that everything in her life had to appear perfect.
Even saying that if someone comes over for dinner, there need to be five courses and the house has got to be spotless. That’s truly a prison and she wants out, but she lives in the same city as her mother who taught her all this, and she fears moving away from those choices and what her mother’s reactions might be. I love these questions that y’all send in. So please send a message over SpeakPipe, which is a voicemail, and I get to listen to your inflections and your voices and I love that. And the SpeakPipe option is in your show notes, but it’s also on my website, drmargaretrutherford.com. It’s right at the top. Let’s hear first from SelfWorknsponsor Magnesium breakthrough.
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Body of Episode:
So let’s talk about ways that you can really screw up your marriage,
Dr. Margaret – Speaker 2
Marital work or couples work. Any kind of couple really is something I love to do. It’s very challenging to help both people feel heard and understood – not always agreed with of course, but as long as I don’t have one or both people looking at me and saying, “Please help them see how wrong they are”. <Laugh>, I feel pretty hopeful – in most cases at least. But sometimes that’s exactly what’s on one or both people’s agenda. They’ve come to therapy way after they should have, it’s really, it’s not too late, but gosh, they’ve come in after multiple fights and threats of divorce or “I’m taking the children”, after affairs or betrayals of some kind have happened, be they financial or emotional or whatever.
And they sit and argue in front of me at least for a while. I allow it to go on because I want to see the pattern that is as long as it doesn’t get physically or verbally assaulted.
If it does, I have to cool things down and sometimes this is what I’ll do. To cool them down. I’ll ask them both, “What do you think are the four greatest predictors of divorce?” Usually I get answers like fighting or your in-laws or trust kinds of answers. And that’s not wrong. But the best research out there, in fact, the most rigorous that has been done is by Julie and John Gottman and what they call the four horsemen of the apocalypse – in this case, meaning the end of the partnership or marriage, are well-regarded as true predictors in the field of psychology. So I look at the couple and by now they have kind of settled down, because remember, they probably wouldn’t be in my office if they truly wanted a divorce.
So they’re open to hear, “Well, okay, what are the predictors?” And I say very slowly in order of importance.
Stonewalling is number four. That’s when one or both of you goes for hours or days refusing to communicate with the other. Usually someone looks kind of sheepish at that point. They may have even told me there are times, like even days, we barely say anything to each other because it’s such a relief from the fighting. Or I’ve seen people kind of smirk like somehow stonewalling their partner is a really cool way to gain control works every time they’ll say, which I would usually answer, “Well, if it worked really well, I don’t think you’d be here.”
What’s number three..Blaming. And not to be mean, but to make my point. I’ll repeat a few phrases from what I’ve just listened to that I would call blaming. Or when you don’t take your share or the responsibility for whatever problems there are, you’re focused on the other one you think you’re not or never to blame or you’re quick to blame, you don’t apologize.
You’re quick to angrily yell, “Whose fault is this? Who did this? “ So, your focus is mostly on other people and what they’re doing wrong and not taking responsibility for yourself.
Number two, let me let you think, if you can guess for a second, what could be number two, it’s close to blaming…criticism – and now the room is getting even more quiet. What’s the difference between blaming and criticizing? They usually are wrapped up together, but you can have one or the other that predominates like blaming is this is your fault. “This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t X, Y, or Z.” Where criticism isn’t as much about fault, but about correcting them saying they’re wrong. And you’re right, you can hear shades of gaslighting here. “Why didn’t you pay that bill?” Or, “ Why do you change the baby’s diaper that way?” Lots of why questions, which puts everybody on the defense by the way, and why questions that infer criticism or there’s downright criticism – “ The way you did that was just dumb” or labeling your partner, “You’re so lazy “or bringing in the kids, “The children are on my side” here, or “All our friends agree with me.”
Making sure you establish yourself as more right than your partner. More put together. You’re like a healthier, more likable human being. So that gives you the right to criticize your partner.
I think the worst thing, no, not the worst, maybe the funniest in many ways was one couple came in and they have one of those strings that come down in their garage so when they pull in, they know when to stop, you know, it kind of hits their windshield. And she was saying that thing would hit the windshield. He had a certain timing that if she didn’t turn off the car like two seconds after that or a second after that, he told her, “You just don’t know how to park.” It was really a little trivial <laugh>. She wasn’t running into the wall. So what do you think the last one is? Guesses.
The last one is contempt. Now what does contempt sound like? And I either pull from what they’ve already said or I make up my own examples. Like , “I can’t believe I married someone like you. No one would ever guess just how disgusting you can be.” “How could you be so stupid?” Or it can be nonverbal stuff l- ike eye-rolling. But it’s you have a disdain, a contempt, a huge disrespect for the other person.
So this couple is sitting in front of me now looking maybe a little ashamed, maybe a little surprised, maybe a little shocked. And a few seconds later, one of them might say to me, “We do all of those.” And I say, “So we’ve got our work cut out for us, right?”
But guess what? Sometimes one of them will say, “Well, I never do any of those things”, or I” wouldn’t do it if she didn’t do it or he didn’t do it or they didn’t do it
Well guess what? That’s blaming, right? <Laugh> or even contempt. And I point that out. Oh, so you just blamed her for all the problems or him.
Now before I go on, let me say that we probably all make these errors. We all have bad days. We say mean things. We may even know what criticisms to use that will really get our partner something like, you know, you’re sounding just like your mother. Oh, I thought you told me you were gonna try to change that in Margaret’s office. I don’t really see it. That’s contempt and we use it on purpose. But if a couple doesn’t see these four things as problems or one of them doesn’t or refuses to, that may likely reflect that there’s true emotional abuse going on, which of course reflects another level of problem. It’s not a bad habit that they’ve gotten into that’s gotten out of hand.
It could be a choice to be in control and sabotage the worth and emotional stability of your partner and the absolute denial of blame or responsibility for any problem can be a destructive character trait that may not respond to therapeutic suggestion at all. Like in some of the personality disorders, borderline histrionic, narcissistic sociopathic, some of those problems if you are married to someone like that or partnered with them, it can take them some time to understand the impact they have on others if they can at all. But that’s not the topic for today. We’re talking about two pretty normal folks who’ve just gotten into some bad habits and may not recognize the horrible impact they can have.
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Okay, so back to this couple. They came in only a few times together. She’d come to therapy to talk about feeling blamed for her husband’s affairs that he’d had for years. “But he doesn’t call them affairs,” she said, “They’re all prostitutes. He says he only goes once a month. Sometimes they have sex, but most of the time he simply wants to be held. But he says it’s my fault because I don’t make love with him the right way, but I do love him and I’m willing to try.”
I’d asked her if he’d come in with her and much to my surprise, he said yes he would. When he came in, he looked and sounded extremely depressed and sure enough he’d had treatment after treatment for depression. He tried all kinds of medicines. He’d even tried E C T, which is electroconvulsive therapy, and he was still suicidal.
Frequently. I won’t go into all of his story, but there was definite emotional abuse in his childhood by his mother and in therapy he stated that he hated himself for going to these prostitutes, hated his inability to stop, hated himself so much that that’s what was behind the suicidality. This is an interesting fact. He’d never told any of the other treating doctors about this self-loathing or this behavior around going to prostitutes and how it was likely tied to continued suicidal thinking. Instead, he opted to keep going and keep hating himself and blaming his wife who he said he loved. He was so sad to hear and watch these two people in these patterns. I tried to give them both as much understanding and support as I could while also not justifying the hurt he was causing. What he couldn’t see was how his present, very painful behavior was strongly linked or at least could be strongly linked to his anger, never expressed against his own mother.
Just look at it. He could express disdain and contempt for a woman, his wife, while still receiving comfort from both her and the prostitutes. He hinted that there were other painful secrets he was keeping. He could almost see it. I could see it in his eyes, but then he looked at me when I suggested treatment like I was out of my mind. I even found a one week intensive program that served professionals like him. No one would have to know or suspect anything, but he was on a vacation. His wife looked hopeful. He never came back. His wife came in one more time. She said, “This is my last session. I think coming to you was the worst thing I could have done. All you talked about were the painful things in our marriage and we have a really great marriage.” I listened and told her I understood that I regretted if she felt that it only focused on their pain and she left.
You could hear the problems, the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They would go a long time without talking to one another. He blamed her for a lot of his behavior, but he also hated himself. He was very critical of her. And of course there was some contempt as well as he didn’t understand why she just couldn’t accept his behavior. And I do remember looking at her and saying, that is an option for you to just accept that this is what is going on. And she said, I’ll try, but I don’t know. But obviously when she came in and was angry with me or that’s where she focused, her anger was on me, which is okay, you know, that happens. She needed to feel like they had a really great marriage and you know, they’re probably still married to one another now in the community. This couple is considered a great couple, but neither of them were at a place where they could see or chose to look for what was underneath their very painful patterns with each other.
I said earlier that I was gonna talk about some other more modern versions of these problems, so I’ll do that now. Stonewalling, for example, it’s basic withdrawal in order to feel in control. Non-communication. I think this can take the form interestingly enough of an intense focus on children where your child’s life takes up so much of your time, you quote unquote, barely have any energy for your partner. Or it could be about work – you stonewall through work. Your attention to work could be so dominant in the relationship and you can justify it, right? Somebody’s gotta make a living around here. But you can see perhaps that both could be related to stonewalling or they have a similar effect. You are not available for your partner, which you justify by saying that the children or your work or your major responsibility, but all the conflict you might have arguing, the criticism, the blaming, none of that ever gets worked out.
You don’t sit down and have a talk with one another about what’s going on between the two of you. Now, it could also be in the form of absorption and video games or Instagram or TikTok. These can also draw you completely away from the relationship as you spend hours isolating from your partner and attaching instead to this virtual reality, which can seem so much more interesting than what’s happening or not happening at home. T
he other three, blaming, criticism and contempt are basic bad attitudes or habits that I imagine have been part of every generation and every era. Sadly, they have also been culturally acceptable historically, especially men treating women that way in relationships. And I’m sure there are examples of women treating men that way. In fact, I know that in certain families that consider the woman more powerful, that it is culturally acceptable for her to treat him badly.
And then of course you can look for support for these behaviors, the blaming, criticism and contempt by socializing with other people who blame and criticize and show immense contempt for reasons they justify. This sort of blaming and criticism and contempt is destructive in a culture and it’s certainly destructive in a partnership. The four horsemen of the apocalypse, stonewalling, blaming, criticism and contempt, they herald or predict the end of what was once treasured. Please think about them in your own life, in your beliefs and in your relationships.
Speak pipe message from drmargaretrutherford.com.
Let’s hear from a listener from Canada.
Voicemail from listener:
Hi Dr. Margaret. So I am 37 and a mother of three kids and my question to you is, I was told by a therapist a couple years ago that I am a perfectionist and that’s why it’s stopping me from applying from jobs, which I always think I’ll never be good enough for. I rarely invite people over because I feel like the house should be super clean and it there should be a five course meal. This was something I’ve learned from my mother. She’s very focused on how our family appears to the exterior, to other people. I’ve been trying to <laugh> rewire myself, so I don’t feel that. But however, inside I don’t feel good doing those things. I feel it’s like the people pleasing part. I feel that I will be judged if I don’t make everything appear great. It’s hard for me because my mother is still like that. And when I visit her, we live in the same city. I feel an internal conflict and it, it’s anxiety provoking for me. How do I deal with that of being myself and kind of not doing
This voicemail made me feel a very poignant sorrow for this mother of three who is struggling to get out of her fears about not seeming or being good enough. It’s interesting that she can see what the problem is. Her therapist called it perfectionism. I’d clear that up and call it a kind of destructive perfectionism because again, it’s based on fear of being found out that she’s human after all. Maybe there’s a closet in her home that’s messy or a glass that’s smudged or that in her thinking about getting a job that she won’t live up to expectations and it doesn’t sound as if she’s even risking finding out what those expectations might be. She knows she learned this fear from her mom who sounds as if she taught it or demonstrated herself maybe unintentionally or maybe very intentionally. Certainly when I grew up, my mother had the table set for a party at least a week in advance.
She checked and rechecked. She had what she was going to wear all laid out way before the party. I saw that and much like this listener believed that I needed to do the same. In fact, I became anorexic because thinness was another one of those expectations. Luckily for me, or I say luckily, I moved away from home and saw life differently. I met women whose lives seemed very different, whose goals and directions were far from rigid and perfectionistic. I attended a very liberal college and feminism was being born, and I saw a way out even though at the time I didn’t realize what I was doing, but this kind of perfectionism is still very, very prevalent in our culture. But I know very personally this inner struggle that this listener is talking about. In fact, for all my rebellion, when I’d go home, I’d still try to seem perfect, even when my real life was in tatters, the strain of that led to panic disorder.
So I certainly hope this listener isn’t experiencing those.
So what can she do? I hope she’s listening because I’d love to send her a copy of my book. Perfectly Hidden Depression. So listener, if you are listening, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you a signed copy because it sounds as if you’d find yourself there.
Okay, let’s talk about what you could do first. Your mother seems to be highly unlikely to support you changing the message cut off before I could hear what exactly the rest of your struggle was when you visited your mom, but I guess is that you still get messages from her about things you should be doing or being that be done better, and those messages hold power. So two things need to happen simultaneously. Less contact with your mom for a while at least, and then beginning to take very small risks to tolerate and cope with your fears of being judged by others negatively.
I realize that’s a lot to do all at once. So start slowly. Start with one friend, have her over and purposefully serve something not perfect like crackers and cheese instead of homemade something. In fact, I have my perfection seeking clients purposefully do something in a mediocre fashion, <laugh>, or what they would consider mediocre. Not an important thing, but something that they’re making important and truly isn’t that they kind of laugh about and go, I know nobody really caress. If I’ve vacuumed the sofa <laugh>, that’s what I do. So I promise you most people are thinking about themselves. They are not thinking about you. We’re all very self-conscious. Look for the small thing that you could try and you could risk. That would be not up to your expectations, but really just fine. Slowly look around your life and do something that you feared in the past doing.
But start with the easiest thing, not the hardest. Remember, there are no small changes. Every change, every risk, no matter how small or seemingly small is important. Now let’s get back to mom. This listener’s mom may wonder or question why those visits aren’t occurring as often. Since this listener’s been in therapy, I’d suggest working either with a great friend who knows about her struggle and is emotionally savvy or with that therapist or both, and write down and practice what you’re going to say to your mom, what you’re going to choose to reveal. You could try something like, “Mom, I’m trying to not be so afraid of what others think of me. It’s really making me unhappy, but I’m not sure where you stand on this as so much of what you do seems perfect.” Something like that. Maybe even that’s too revealing. You could decide what’s right for you.
You can write it down and send it to her. You can email it, you can text it, you can say it to her face, but maybe you need to sort of help her see that, that you need to be around her less. But I also think that it is, that’s a hard conversation to have and your mother may or may not be capable of actually having it in a fair way, in a healthy way. So that part of it is something you and your therapist are gonna have to talk about. There’s so much life ahead of you and there’s so much freedom in being able to decide whether or not you’re going to strive for perfect or near perfect. And that’s fine. And if you do enjoy that process or whether this time you’re going to do what’s more normal and easy and enjoy that as well, it’s more freeing because it’s a choice and you’re no longer wrecked by fear and shame. That is what my book is all about. So I hope you’ll email me and you can follow and do, it’s over 60 exercises of reflections and read other stories to realize you’re so far from being alone.
So we’re gonna do something fun in September. I’m gonna give away two books. Now, not perfectly Hidden Depression, I’m actually gonna give away a little book that Christine Mathias and I put together called Marriage Is Not for Chickens. It’s a great little book to give somebody for an anniversary or they’re getting married and I’m sure in the fall we’re going to have some fall weddings and some holiday weddings. So I’m going to pick two reviewers who review on Apple Podcast in September who review self-work. And then I’ll pick two, not the first two, not the last two. I’ll choose them randomly and thank you. I hope you have fun with this. And of course, I hope you love self-work as well. Also, I have a really, I’m so proud of our new website. It’s really beautiful. It’s drmargaretrutherford.com and you can subscribe there.
You’ll get my weekly newsletter, which actually gives you a rundown of everything I do. For example, my blog post this week was on Fobbing. Do you know what Fobbing is? <Laugh>? Well, it’s the newest way to really alienate someone that you may or may not be interested in, and it has to do with cell phone use or looking at your screen, et cetera. So you could go over to Dr. Margaret brother for.com and subscribe, and you’d be able to get that link to that Fobbing <laugh> article. I write about all kinds of things that are either near and dear to me or something that I’m very interested in learning more about myself. You can also, in fact, recently, a whole bunch of people have joined the Facebook group at facebook.com/groups/ self-work. Thank you so much for being here. Tell your friends, we’d love to have more of you. Take very good care of yourself, your loved ones in your community. I’m, and this has been.