The Four Horsemen

As May comes to an end, we wrap up our series on recognizing the "Four Horsemen" that Gottman has found predict divorce, and to use their antidotes.  I'm hoping that these last four months have helped you to be aware of the behaviors that predict divorce, and to know how you can make different choices to build your positive, playful parenting team!  

For more help in this area, join us for a Bringing Baby Home class or schedule a 1-on-1 consultation with Lara!  

For one last summary, check out this article from the Gottman Institute.  

Come back tomorrow to to the 5:1 Ratio Blog for the June "Slow Down and Breathe" Challenge!  

Fighting in front of the kids

When is it appropriate to fight in front of the kids?  In John Medina's book Brain Rules (Updated and Expanded), he talks about "One of the greatest predictors of performance in school turns out to be the emotional stability of the home... Given that stress can powerfully affect learning, one might predict that children living in high-anxiety households would not perform as well academically as kids living in more nurturing households. That is exactly what studies show. Marital stress at home can negatively affect academic performance in almost every way measurable, and at nearly any age... Careful subsequent investigations showed that it was the presence of overt conflict, not divorce, that predicted grade failure.” (Brain Rule #4: Stressed Brains Don't Learn the Same Way, emphasis mine).

Therefore, we can consider ways to reduce how much we fight in front of the children, and how we teach them conflict management strategies.  Some ideas:

  • Having a regular time when we bring up conflicts when the children are out of earshot, so that conflicts don't build up over time.
  • Looking for regular ways to express fondness and affection for one another, so that we can maintain the positive perspective.
  • Taking breaks to calm down so that problems don't escalate.
  • Focusing on keeping mealtimes positive, so that kids develop a positive association with eating.

If you think a certain topic may be upsetting to you or your partner, try to avoid talking about it in front of the kids. Wait to bring it up when you are alone.Starting at around age 4, we can have small disagreements in front of the children, but it is important that they see us physically make up at the end.  

Check out this article for more information.  

More tips and tricks


Why take a break?

Stonewalling happens when we feel so overwhelmed or upset that we shut down.  We become like a stone wall.  

Statistically speaking, men are more likely to stonewall than women, and they tend to stay aroused for longer periods of time than women do.  Inside their heads, they seem to be saying, "Just shut up. You'll only make it worse. She can't go on like this forever."  What often happens in this situation is that the other person (typically the woman) feels abandoned, and pushes harder to get a response.  

So why is it so important to make an agreement that it is OK to take a break?  When we are upset and just fight it out, we say things that we regret or we make our partner feel abandoned by stonewalling.  When we take a break to calm down before continuing the discussion, we can use our whole brains to think more clearly.  We gain access to our sense of humor and affection with one another.  

How do we know that breaks work?  Dr. Gottman and his colleagues did research where they brought couples into the Love Lab and asked them to discuss a disagreement.  "...They discovered that a 20-minute break in which couples stopped talking and just reading magazines (as their heart rates returned to baseline) dramatically changed the discussion so that people had access to their sense of humor and affection."

In the 2015 Networker Symposium, Julie Gottman presented her keynote, "What Works in Couples Therapy." In this clip from the presentation, Julie explains why partners get emotionally "flooded," and how this can be remedied. Did you enjoy this video? Check out more from the Gottmans at

Come back next Monday to learn more about what a good break looks like. 

You can also check out this article from the Gottman website about the pursue-withdraw pattern.  


The most important thing you can do to make your relationship work

When I teach Bringing Baby Home classes, I always give away plastic monsters.  We use those monsters to represent our problems, and to remind us that we need to work together as a team to fight the monsters.  If we let those monsters get between us, we end up fighting each other instead of fighting the problem.  

For more thoughts on this, check out this short video from Dr. Gottman:

Welcome to the "Accepting Responsibility" Challenge

We are working on reducing the "4 Horsemen" from our relationships.  In January we worked on identifying when we notice criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling in our relationships.  In February we practiced the antidote to contempt: creating a culture of appreciation.  In March we practiced the antidote to criticism: complaining without blaming.  This month, instead of choosing blame and defensiveness, we are going to practice choosing responsibility and accountability.   

"Next, we get down to the hard part. We each have to take some responsibility for our part in the fight. Nobody likes doing this. But when we do, the problem becomes our problem in communicating, and not the diabolical dealings of Lex Luthor, who, of course, is our partner, and not ourselves. Arguments are almost never one person's fault" (excerpt from John Gottman & Julie Schwartz Gottman's book And Baby Makes Three, 2007, p. 109).

Clearly stating what we need

Once we are able to describe the problem without judging the other person, it is important that we are able to clearly tell the person what it is we need.  If we can do that, we are giving them the tools that they need to meet our need.  Describing our needs in clear terms opens the discussion about what may or may not be realistic.  It can be hard to state our needs when we feel that we might be rejected, but it is the way to set ourselves up for success.  

Being polite and appreciative

We all need to feel appreciated. When we say "please" and "thank you", we show respect to our partner and we are modeling good habits for our children.  We can say "I really appreciate it when we do the dishes together.  It makes me feel like I am part of a great team.  Is there any way we can do the dishes together more often?"

Using a softened start-up; making statements that start with "I"

According to research by Dr. John Gottman, the way that a conversation starts is often the way that it will end.  Therefore, if we can phrase our complaints by stating our feelings and our needs, rather than attacking the other person, we are helping our partner to know how they can support us.  We are less likely to seem critical when our statements start with "I" instead of "you."  We can say something like "When... I feel... I need..." 

This article from the Gottman Institute talks about how to soften our start-up for more productive conflict management.  

"Culture of appreciation" practice #4: Associate thankfulness with a daily ritual

One way that we can practice gratitude is to create gratitude rituals associated with a time of day.  For example:

Mealtimes: We can make a routine at mealtimes to share what we are thankful for.  When we do this, we increase our ratio of positives to negatives, we increase fondness and affection, and we get to know each other better.

Bedtimes:  When we tuck our children into bed, we can take time to share what we are thankful for.  When we get into bed, we can take 5 minutes to write down a few things we are thankful for in a journal.  

Any other daily routine:  We can think about what we are thankful for every time we brush our teeth.  One of my gratitude rituals is to use my "Thankful" app when I get on the elliptical every morning.  

Culture of appreciation practice #3: schedule it and breathe it

Another strategy that we can use to increase gratitude in our lives is to set an alarm or a daily event on our calendar that reminds us to stop and consider what we are thankful for.  We could even consider adding an element of focused breathing... taking just one minute a day to breathe deeply and to think about what we are thankful for.  We get extra credit for sharing what we are thankful for with another person when we are done!

"Culture of appreciation" practice #2: say it

Valentine's Day is a great opportunity to think about how we express our affection and thankfulness to the people that we care about.  It's an opportunity to say, "I'm so thankful for who you are and for the joy that you bring to my life."  

One way that we can do this on a regular basis is to use a strategy called "positive descriptive acknowledgements."  We say something specific that the person did, with an adjective about how it describes the person, such as desired character trait or expectation.  For example, to a child we might say "You took turns with your friend. That's friendly," or "You put away the dishes. That is helpful." We can even look at the behaviors that we don't want and look for opportunities to provide positive, descriptive acknowledgements when they do the opposite!

To our partner we might say, "Thank you for doing the dishes. That's really helpful, and it makes me feel like our family matters to you."

I am thankful for each of you who reads this.  

More details on how to move from praise to positive, descriptive acknowledgment can be found here:

Find more strategies for acknowledging children here:

Some classroom examples of providing positive, descriptive acknowledgement instead of saying "no" all the time:


This week's challenge:  Make a plan for how you can regularly tell your loved ones and friends and even acquaintances what you are thankful for and what you like about them.