Except for the time in 3rd grade when I lost my cool during an impassioned game of keep-away, I’ve only had a few really heated arguments in my life. And with a pretty small number of people – basically just family…and chamber music partners.

Indeed, many have compared the dynamics and relationships amongst those in serious ensembles with that of marriages (for instance, The NY Times on the Guarneri Quartet, or Chicago Tribune on the Chicago String Quartet).

And of course, there are some quartets like the award-winning Pacifica Quartet which have members who actually are married to each other (read this great interview with the Pacifica, which includes the one piece of advice they’d like to share with young quartets, how they deal with nerves, and the one food they all agreed to eat if stuck on an island together).

However, just as most dates don’t lead to marriages, and a significant percentage of marriages end in divorce (though probably not as high as the apparently inflated 50% figure you often see), a great many quartets break up as well, some very painfully and publicly so (such as the Audubon – via this NY Times piece, or via NPR).

So if this notion of quartets being like marriages has some merit, might there be something we can learn and apply to our ensembles from the extensive research literature on what makes for happy and long-lasting marriages?

93.6%

John Gottman is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington and arguably one of the most influential psychologists of the past few decades. He is perhaps best known however, as the guy who can predict whether a couple will divorce or not with a 93.6% degree of accuracy.

That statistic may sound a little insane, but long story short, Gottman recruited 79 married couples to come to his lab and discuss a subject of some ongoing disagreement for 15 minutes while being videotaped. Then, he and his team painstakingly analyzed each of these arguments conversations to see if there were any specific behaviors that differentiated the couples who would eventually get divorced from those who remained happily married (or unhappily married, for that matter) over the course of 14 years.

Intuitively, one might predict that perhaps the happily married couples (the “Masters”) simply didn’t argue or get into heated discussions, whereas the divorced couples (the “Disasters”) argued like cats and dogs, but what they found was more interesting. The key factor wasn’t whether they argued or not, but the presence of 4 specific behaviors that tended to predict (with 93.6% accuracy), whether the marriage would eventually end in divorce or not.

He called these four behaviors the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse .

The Four Horsemen

The four behaviors are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

(1) Criticism is where rather than focusing on a specific behavior and how it’s affecting us, we attack a person’s character. Even though it’s better to express or indicate what you want or need from your colleagues in a more solution-focused way.

“You always rush” vs. “I’m feeling a little rushed here; could we take a little more time?”

(2) Defensiveness is pulling the “it’s not me, it’s you” card. Blaming others in response to criticism, instead of taking partial responsibility and actually engaging with each other in a more productive problem-solving conversation. Even though it’s more productive to own up to your part in the situation (we all play some role or responsibility in whatever’s happening), and discuss ways to all contribute to the mutually desired outcome.

I’m not rushing – you’re dragging and making things sound stuck” vs. “It sounds a little stuck…maybe I’m pushing things a little too much. What are you hearing? Any other ideas to unstuck things?”

(3) Contempt is the strongest predictor of divorce, and thus perhaps the most important factor to keep an eye out for. This is where you essentially one-up others and put yourself in a position of superiority, with sarcasm, mockery, name-calling, insults, hostility, or the artfully timed eyeroll. Even though it’s more effective to cultivate a culture of respect, admiration, and appreciation for each others’ unique, valuable, and integral contributions to the team.

“That’s ridiculous” or “I told you that wouldn’t work” vs. “Yeah, that didn’t sound quite right, but it was interesting…and worth a shot. What else shall we try?”

(4) Stonewalling is where we withdraw emotionally and go into passive aggressive mode or dole out the silent treatment. Often it’s an alternative to lashing out in anger when we’re too emotionally or physiologically worked up, but it isn’t really any more effective in resolving conflicts. It’s better to take a 20-min break to cool off, and reconvene when you can engage in a more productive conversation.

“[silence…shrug shoulders]…whatever” vs. “Let’s take a break.”

Wait, there’s more!

As you can imagine, marital relationships are a pretty huge field of inquiry with lots of interesting, nuanced, and cool research to explore. For instance, the factors that predict divorce within the first 7 years of marriage are different than those which predict later divorce (the four horsemen predicting divorce 5.6 years after marriage vs. emotional withdrawal and anger predicting divorce 16.2 years after marriage – source).

And there are differences too between the factors that contribute to long unhappy marriages versus lasting happy marriages. There are even indications that a certain ratio of positive to negative interactions is an important factor too (it’s 5:1, btw).

So what do you think? Do you recognize any of these communication patters in your interactions with colleagues in ensembles you are a part of?

Take action

In the meantime, here are some strategies from Gottman’s blog on how to foster more productive interactions and move away from these four relationship-destroying behaviors.