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Relationships End Where They Begin

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In his 2007 book “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell combines a broad spectrum of research to make the case for the power of first impressions. One of his quoted sources is relationship counselor John Gottman, who penned “The Science of Trust” and other books on human relationships. Gladwell focused on Gottman’s “four horsemen of the apocalypse” behaviors as strong predictors of how a relationship will work out. Unfortunately, according to Gottman himself, Gladwell got it wrong.

Gottman identified many behaviors that undermine a relationship, but cited these four as the most damaging: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling (refusing to discuss problems). However, Gottman suggested only that these four behaviors cause problems that may or may not be corrected, not that they are final predictors of a relationship’s outcome, as Gladwell claimed.

However, Gottman did say that there is one virtually surefire indicator (which Gladwell overlooked) of whether a couple will be able to overcome these and other problems and successfully get their relationship back on track: how each partner talks about the beginning of their relationship. If they both remember how optimistic they were about the future, then the relationship has a good chance of working out despite their difficulties. But if one or both partners recount only the difficulties they had, then the relationship is more than likely doomed.

Here’s why. Apparently, in order not to overload our present thinking capacity (our mental RAM, if you will) when we think about the past, we edit down our memories to what our brains consider the essential points. Freud calls it “repetition compulsion,” which is simply a neurotic defense mechanism where you attempt to rewrite history. In periods of great stress, what our brains consider “essential” can vary greatly depending on what’s going on in our current lives.

According to Gottman, memories of how a relationship began are a powerful indicator of how someone feels about the relationship today. In large part, this is because most relationships started out, on balance, very good — otherwise, they wouldn’t have resulted in a relationship, whether it’s a marriage, friendship or working relationship. Having only (or predominantly) bad memories requires a substantial amount of rewriting history, a consistent indicator that someone already has at least one foot out the door.

When I was rereading Gottman’s book the other day (I’ll spare you the reason why), it occurred to me that this pattern of rewriting history is one that we often come across in our work with the employers and employees in advisory firms, with equally predictable outcomes. Perhaps not surprisingly, we use a very similar approach to the one Gottman suggests for relationships to help owner-advisors and their employees get their relationships back on track — or not.

Consider that during the hiring process, both the employer and the employee experience very similar emotions to those a couple feels in the honeymoon stage of a relationship. There’s the excitement of a new opportunity, the happiness that comes from making a strong new connection and the hopefulness that the new relationship will last a long time and will continue to be a positive one for both parties. Rarely do people hire someone — or take a job — if they don’t have these kinds of good feelings.

Yet consistent with Gottman’s observations, we’ve noticed that when an employer or an employee becomes disgruntled with each other, they often describe the experience of the hiring or the early months of employment in much darker tones (which we know is rewritten history because we were usually involved in those early days and know for a fact that they were largely positive for both parties).

We’ve also found, as Gottman did, that the motivation behind this rewriting often comes from the damage caused by one or more of those “four horseman” — criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. Here are what these relationship obstacles look like in general (Gottman’s words) and in the workplace:

Criticism. “When you criticize your partner,” writes Gottman, you are “implying that there is something wrong with them. [...] Your partner is most likely to feel under attack and to respond defensively. This is a dangerous pattern because neither person feels heard and both may begin to feel bad about themselves in the presence of the other. The antidote to criticism is to make a direct complaint that is not a global attack on your partner’s personality.”

At work, employers’ criticism is usually more direct, while employee criticisms of the boss are more often made to co-workers. Either way, criticism is damaging to a work relationship because it takes a work disagreement and makes it a personal deficiency, greatly reducing the likelihood of working on the original problem on a professional level.

The good news is that we find it’s usually a lot easier to keep things on a non-personal level in the workplace if both parties are aware of how permanently damaging personal attacks can be.

Defensiveness. Gottman: “When you attempt to defend yourself from a perceived attack with a countercomplaint you are being defensive. Unfortunately, defensiveness keeps partners from taking responsibility for their own problems and escalates negative communication. The antidote to defensiveness is to try to hear your partner’s complaint and to take some responsibility for the problem.”

Defensiveness makes the problem worse by making it more personal. We find it’s hard for employees not to respond defensively due to the difference in status. A more effective solution is to help firm owners understand the damage caused by acting critically, and when they do, to take responsibility by apologizing.

Contempt. Gottman: “Contempt is any statement or nonverbal behavior that puts yourself on a higher ground than your partner. Mocking your partner, calling them names, rolling your eyes and sneering in disgust are all examples of contempt. Of all the horsemen, contempt is the most serious. The antidote to contempt is to lower your tolerance for contemptuous statements and behaviors, and to actively work on building a culture of appreciation in the relationship.”

As with criticism, contempt is most often directed by employers to employees. It’s bad enough in a personal relationship, but we find this can be even more damaging in a work relationship as it usually comes from a “superior.” Consequently, we find it’s incumbent on employers not to treat their employees with contempt. This is probably the hardest of the destructive behaviors to undo, so avoidance is the key.

Stonewalling. Gottman: “Stonewalling happens when the listener withdraws from the conversation. The stonewaller might actually physically leave or they might just stop tracking the conversation and appear to shut down. The stonewaller may look like he doesn’t care but that usually isn’t the case. Typically, they are overwhelmed and are trying to calm themselves. Unfortunately, this seldom works because the partner is likely to assume they don’t care enough about the problem to talk about it.”

The antidote to stonewalling is for employers to learn to identify the signs that an employee is starting to feel emotionally overwhelmed, and to suggest taking a break. If the problem still needs to be discussed, pick it up when you both are calmer.

In Gottman’s view, each of these “four horsemen” behaviors “undermines the house of trust.” We find that in a workplace setting, it is the employer’s responsibility to maintain trust with his or her employees. Employers who live up to this responsibility have fewer employee problems.

At the risk of getting too personal, I feel compelled to share a story of a professor who, many years ago, changed the way I repair relationships in my own life using Gottman’s research. While taking a marriage and family therapy class for my degree in financial planning, we were talking about repairing client relationships. I asked, “What is the key to the best relationships?” The teacher simply replied, “Always remember relationships end where they begin.”

The thing about relationships (marriages, partnerships, friendships, etc.) is to remember that you are going to go through highs and lows.

If you or the other person rewrites history to the negative, your relationship is likely going to end in the negative (think about how many spouses hate each other after they get divorced). If you remember the good (think about the way many people talk about the day their child was born), your relationship is going to end in the good, no matter the weirdness (or teenage years) in the middle.

That is what Gottman is saying and how Gladwell got it wrong. You can have the existence of the four horseman in the relationship and work to eliminate them, but that’s not what predicts its outcome. What predicts it is the story — how you write or rewrite the beginning of the fairy tale is how the fairy tale will end.