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Keep the 4 Horsemen out of Christmas (or any other holiday family gathering)

Why is it that family gatherings can bring out the worst in people?  Well things can really go downhill when any of what relationship expert, John Gottman’s 4 horsemen show up.  The 4 horsemen of the apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling are behaviours that in relationships spell doom (hence their name!)

The 4 horsemen have no place at holiday dinners so don’t bring them with you.  Remember you cannot change other’s behaviour – you are only responsible for yourself. And wouldn’t it be lovely if everyone left their 4 horsemen at home!

Criticism:  That throwaway comment about your hair colour or weight or job or anything else for that matter that feels like having a dig is criticism.  You may have a family member that feels it’s their duty to point out your flaws so you can (in their mind at least) improve and better yourself. 

If you are that family member STOP.  Find something that you can appreciate about the person and share that with them instead.  If you are the recipient of the criticism put it through the “reality checker” and then let it go.  The reality checker looks like this:  mum doesn’t like my hair colour…I like my hair colour that’s all that matters.  And smile because if you don’t you could be responsible for the next horsemen…

Defensiveness:  It is completely natural to want to defend yourself when you feel like you are being attacked.  The problem is the way most people do that is to throw the same or better back again.  Like when mum says she doesn’t like your hair colour, if you respond with “Well that green dress makes you look like a Christmas tree!” neither of you are going to feel good and it will set the tone between the 2 of you for the day.  Now of course it would be really nice if the criticism didn’t happen but when it does, I find the easiest way to ward off defensiveness, when you feel attacked, is to not escalate it by attacking back.  Instead a non-defensive response would be “So I’m hearing you say you don’t like my hair OK!”  If the criticism persists you may also need to clarify the boundary: “You know, mum I am hearing you say you don’t like my hair well I’m an adult now and I get to choose how I wear my hair.”

Contempt:  This is considered the sulfuric acid of love it is so damaging to relationships and often comes out in families when someone believes they are superior maybe morally or intellectually or financially to someone else and then they draw attention to that perceived superiority in a way that shames or humiliates them. For example: “When are you going to earn some real money and buy yourself a new car…”.  Or “I hear you got kicked out of College for failing. I always managed to pass even when I hardly attended a class”. 

Contempt hurts on many levels.  It attacks your sense of self and they may be getting at you at a time in your life when you are not feeling particularly good about yourself (like when you have just been kicked out of college!).  

If you feel superior or like to judge particular members of your family then check it at the door.  Make family events a judgement free zone for everyone’s wellbeing. And if others are being contemptuous try to focus on not taking it personally – what they say says more about them and where they are at with their life right now.  If you can try to have compassion for that person and if compassion is too much of a stretch then go for tolerance and you will feel better about yourself.

Stonewalling:  the last horsemen is about shutting down, ignoring or not listening.  It is a desperate measure in a social situation and quite frustrating to be the recipient of stonewalling but most stonewallers are trying and struggling to manage their own emotion in that moment that may have absolutely nothing to do with you.  If you are prone to stonewalling yourself, instead of shutting down, try to reflect back to the person talking to you what you have just heard them say as a way of staying in the conversation.  Or tell them you need a bathroom break and take yourself away for a few minutes to get your breath.

Family gatherings can be joyful and full of love, compassion and understanding of each other’s individuality or they can be a source of pain requiring the greatest tolerance to get through.  Most families lie somewhere in between.  Keep the 4 horsemen away and you will be doing what you can to GROW the LOVE with your family this holiday season.

Happy Holidays


PS You can GROW the LOVE by sharing this with your family.  You never know what might happen!

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