We celebrate the Fourth of July as an anniversary of sorts, a day to commemorate the shared dream that brought us together as a country. In between the flags and fireworks, such a major milestone is as good a moment as any to take stock of how our relationship is doing.
The answer is not so great. It’s been 241 years and counting, but we may be falling apart.
Evidence? The Gottman Institute, co-founded by married doctors John and Julie Gottman and known worldwide for its work on marital stability and divorce prediction, spent 40 years researching couples to uncover the patterns that influence relationship health. While their research detailed plenty of positive indicators, one of their most striking findings was what they termed the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” — communication styles that can predict the end of a connection. These four — criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt — spell death when it comes to interpersonal relationships.
Unfortunately, today’s United States has all four in spades.
Start with criticism: Making ad hominem attacks on a partner’s character, rather than discussing specific behaviors. C’mon, #Resistance: It can’t possibly be true that every Republican who supports stronger border vetting hates Muslims, or that anyone who opposes federal funding for Planned Parenthood is a creepy misogynist bent on instituting a “ Handmaid’s Tale ”-style forced-reproduction regime. Yet moral disparagement is too often the go-to stance. We’ve all but abandoned the harder path of seeking to understand the real reasoning behind an opponent’s views.
Then there’s defensiveness — self-protection in the form of performed victimhood or righteous indignation. “The media is lying about us,” cries the right. “The news is fake, the papers are frauds, and all of them are conspiring to undermine us. And how dare reporters attack our president this way — have they no respect for the office?” But Russia might have interfered in the election; the president might be profiteering from the Oval Office. Instead of addressing the real problems at hand, we seek out someone to blame.
Stonewalling, when one listener simply withdraws from the conversation, is one horseman that has been at a full gallop for years. In 2009, even before Barack Obama was inaugurated as president, Republicans resolved that, in the words of one former senator, “If he was for it, we had to be against it.” The policy held through two full terms. In 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blocked confirmation hearings for Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland for an unheard-of eight months. A recipe for productive give-and-take? Not so much.
The most destructive of all is contempt: true meanness, statements handed down from a position of superiority and meant to disrespect. In marital relationships, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. In our national debate, it’s become all too common. Hillary Clinton famously lamented the “basket of deplorables” opposing her during the election; as the new administration moved forward on its agenda, one New York magazine analysis was headlined “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly.” To many on the left, Trump voters are fools. A loss of dignity, autonomy and health care is exactly what they deserve.
It’s an equal-opportunity problem, and, no, it isn’t all about President Trump: Both right and left have engaged in the breakdown-inducing behaviors that have put our democracy on the edge of divorce. While the right has been the source of some of the more obvious offenses in recent years, these aren’t new phenomena — and the fixes aren’t, either.
Though the Gottmans were speaking to unhappy couples, their advice suggests a way forward. The antidote to criticism is to offer a critique of the specific problem at hand, rather than resorting to attack. To end defensiveness, take responsibility. Building a culture of respect can end contempt. Boorishness has an equal and opposite reaction, but breaking the cycle of anger requires that someone — from either party! — step up and take responsibility for change, even if the results aren’t immediately apparent.
While a national political system isn’t quite the same as a marriage, it’s built on the same foundation: a commitment to shared values, a positive approach to conflict, strong communication. Perhaps for our 242nd anniversary, we can trade a few horsemen for an attempt at harmony. Our relationship may be on the rocks, but it’s still worth saving.