The Headless Horseman is a character from folklore, traditionally depicted as a man on horseback who is seen either carrying his head or having lost it entirely. At times, he is depicted using a jack-o-lantern as a replacement (festive!).
Similarly, when you engage in one of the Four Horsemen (Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, or Stonewalling), you may feel as though you have lost your head and/or temporarily replaced it with a jack-o-lantern.
But just as spotting the Headless Horseman is a rare occurrence (no one in the folk tales encounters him at the feed store, offering his opinions in the comments section of a Facebook post, or struggling to assemble IKEA furniture), the Four Horsemen are not permanent states of being.
In most healthy relationships, a partner is not always critical, defensive, contemptuous, or stonewalling. Aside from Contempt, they are behaviors that even the happiest couples occasionally slip into.
The difference is that the “Masters” of relationships know how to keep the Four Horsemen at bay and maintain a high positive-to-negative interaction ratio, even in conflict.
So try to keep the Horsemen (Headless and otherwise) reined in to avoid any unnecessary scares.
Changes in the seasons mean a host of new ways to turn towards your partner.
Trusting that you and your partner will turn towards one another in emotional moments, as well as in everyday conversation, is truly what good relationships are all about. Becoming attuned to the ways in which the two of you interact, and making Turning Towards an intentional act is vital to reducing stress and creating an atmosphere of trust. Try these 15 ideas to turn towards one another or come up with your own. Revisit this list when you both feel like you need to bring more opportunities to connect into your relationship.
It’s easy to get hung up on the things you could improve in your relationship. There’s always a little thing here or there that went imperfectly, that results in conflict, or that you wish you’d handled better. And it’s normal to strive to improve.
But you’re together for a reason. Sometimes in the journey toward what’s possible, you might forget to look at the progress you’ve already made.
Every relationship is unique. What are your relationship’s strengths? What do you two do better than anyone else you know? Go ahead, get smug about it!
There’s always something to nitpick—an artist never truly “finishes” their work and relationships are co-created works of art. But it’s important to take some time to pat yourselves on the back for what you already do well.
What are your relationship’s superpowers? What have you gotten a lot better at over time? What have you never had to work on? Celebrate your strengths.
In the words of Certified Gottman Therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw in this Instagram post, “I statements are only helpful when they are truly about the self.”
We teach that the antidote to criticism is the Softened Start-Up, which starts with an “I statement.” But an “I statement” can also be twisted into criticism if you’re not careful:
“I feel like you’re a bad driver.” “I’m mad because you’re so lazy.” “I am always picking up after you.”
Evaluate your “I” statements. Are they really expressing your feeling or experience with a sense of ownership? Or are they casting an opinion or criticism on your partner? Instead of the critical statements above, try “I” statements that are actually about yourself.
“I get anxious in the car.” “I like to feel busy.” “I think I’m overwhelmed by the amount of housework I’m doing right now.”
One of our favorite metaphors is the Emotional Bank Account. If the idea of a bank account is too touchy right now, you can also think of it as a fuel tank, a marble jar, or a bucket.
Every loving action—turning towards bids, recognizing and acting on “sliding door moments,” checking in with each other, sharing a dream for the future—acts as a “deposit.” Couples can rely on this buildup of goodwill in their Emotional Bank Account as a sort of “rainy day fund” for when they are stressed out, in conflict, or just exhausted.
So what can you do when prolonged periods of stress, conflict, or anxiety have you feeling overdrawn? What can you do if you don’t feel like you have that cushion of kindness to fall back on?
Here are three things you can do to get your balance back on track:
Train your brain to notice the good. We like to say “catch your partner doing something right,” rather than identifying and dwelling on the ways your partner is letting you down. Are they turning towards your bids for connection? Are they still doing that chore that you’ve gotten used to them doing? Even noticing if your partner looks cute or smiling at them can start to get your brain on the frequency of positivity.
Express appreciation. Compliment your partner, say thank you, and call out when they do things that make you feel cared for.
Talk about it. Tell your partner about your stress, and listen (without problem-solving!) to theirs. Share, without blame, that you’re feeling disconnected. Chances are they’re feeling the same way, and then you can start making deposits together.
Do you assume the best in your partner? What assumptions do you make when they do something that happens to ruffle your feathers?
In most relatively healthy relationships, partners are not out to “get” each other. However, sometimes, if negative sentiment is starting to creep in, their actions can be interpreted that way.
For example, you said you were going to do the dishes but time got away from you and your partner ended up doing them instead. Within the context of assuming negativity, they might think you deliberately “forgot” so they would have to do them. You might think that their doing the dishes was a way of communicating, “I’m always cleaning up after you,” and feel defensive.
Or, you could treat each other with care. In that instance, your partner might think, “They’re really busy. I’m sure they just forgot.” Seeing that they did the dishes out of kindness, you might thank them.
Dr. John Gottman says, “Couples often ignore each other’s emotional needs out of mindlessness, not malice.” Accordingly, you and your partner can treat each other with extra generosity by assuming positive intent.
What would happen if you viewed your partner as an ally rather than an adversary?
John Gottman notes that he was surprised to find that couples having what is categorized as a “neutral” or calm interaction are actually doing well.
Julie Gottman adds, “I want to be sure that our listeners don’t think that expressing anger is a bad thing. That is not true. So being passionate, being intense, expressing anger, and so on is fine depending on how you voice it. So if you’re expressing anger with an ‘I’ statement that describes how you feel, as opposed to pointing a finger at your partner and describing them as flawed or to blame, that’s very different.”
Even if it’s not your proudest moment, owning your anger by saying, “I’m mad!” is ok, rather than saying, “you’re making me mad!”
You may be feeling anger, and that’s fine, but your partner isn’t making you feel it. It’s okay to feel angry, as long as you acknowledge and own that it’s your feeling.