The Greatest Issue of Destructive Family Dynamics

Deb Houden
Deb Houden

In my last post, I shared the parallels I found between the marriage research of John Gottman, Ph.D. and how it applies to any familial relationship especially those who own/work together. Gottman dubbed the four most detrimental behaviors for a marital relationship as The Four Horsemen: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt. (Criticism is discussed here.)

Defensiveness , says Gottman, is a way of blaming the other for the issue and blame has never solved any dispute. By accepting responsibility for at least your own part of the problem goes a long way in having a constructive discussion. Being defensive is like having a rubber wall around a person, never letting in any type of constructive feedback. The defensive person takes feedback and twists it to fling back at the person in order to protect themselves. Communication and problem solving get increasingly difficult with this person because attempts to better a situation are stalled from the beginning and the conflict escalates. Teenagers and young adults need to learn to graciously accept feedback and hone their own ability to change and grow. Defensiveness is an inherited trait.

The third part of The Four Horsemen is stonewalling: when one of the participants of a relationship withdraws from interaction. How many times do we see people go quiet and withdraw when things get difficult? How many times do people get flooded and not know how to manage the situation so they shut down? It happens a lot. People falsely believe that by not interacting in a time on conflict that there will be a better outcome than by confronting the negative, but the research shows that is not the case. It’s a death knell for a relationship.

Being able to talk with someone (or even argue in a constructive way) is better than shutting down. I have worked with more than a few families who have the culture of not “fighting.” The problem is that no one learns to manage conflict effectively. Stonewalling is a fierce form of control over the other person. There is no emotional connectedness with the person who is stonewalling because they have emotionally built an impenetrable wall around their psyche.

Finally, Gottman argues that the greatest predictor of divorce is contempt, and I argue it is the greatest issue of destructive family dynamics. Contempt displays include sarcasm, cynicism, eye-rolling, name-calling, tsk-ing, sneering and hostile humor. (There are more, and you know them when you see them).  Parents don’t understand how their children can act that way towards their siblings yet they demonstrate those same behaviors to their own relatives in the firm.

Contemptible actions are made to discount the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the other in such a way as to inflict incredible damage. To ignore someone who is doing that takes Herculean strength!  I have been the recipient of contempt and it is probably, to me, the absolute worst treatment anyone can do. I feel silly, angry, not valued, and completely turned off.

Imagine if that happens every day when you work someone who is related to you?  I have been in situations where parents do this to children.  What does that teach?  The parent is keeping the child one step below, always on the lower rung. How can we prepare a child to have good relationships, have confidence to take on challenges when they are made to feel inferior?  To me, contempt is akin to hatred. Who needs enemies when family members display contempt?  There is NO PLACE for displays of contempt.

I am not naïve to expect that none of the above will happen in even the most loving, respectful and constructive of relationships. Sometimes emotions take over and we become our worst self – especially with those whom we trust will forgive us. But the preparation of our children is such an important task that we really need to teach them emotional skills that help with relationships. When you find yourself behaving a little subpar (and that might take some reflecting time to let the anger subside), acknowledge your actions and admit that you are not your best self sometimes.

Gottman’s final word of advice to couples is to try to have a ratio of 5:1 in positive to negative interactions (over a long span). By conceding less than stellar behavior and combating it with some positive interaction, you will mitigate the damage from the Four Horseman. We can do that with our next gen, too. Try to remember the golden ratio to keep the Four Horseman of the Relational Death at bay. Then you will have prepared your next gen well.

For more information about next-generation development, read Deb’s article published in The Family Business Advisor: Introducing Teens and Young Adults to the Family Enterprise.