John Gottman has been the leading researcher on romantic couples–mostly marriages–for at least a decade. He has developed a technique for analyzing conversations that lets him predict with a lot of accuracy whether that couple will stay together during the next several years. One of the things he does is video a couple talking about a contentious subject and code the conversation for what he calls the four horsemen of the apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. The presence of these behaviors indicates that the relationship is being corroded.

Here’s a paraphrase of how he defines the four horsemen in The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

Criticism: Any statement that indicates that one partner thinks there is something wrong with the other, such as “What’s wrong with you?” or “You always blah-blah-blah.” Note that what he calls criticism is different from complaining. In a complaint, one partner says that they didn’t like something that the other did. For a complaint to become criticism, it needs a barb. A generalization like “You always…” or “You never…” will do, as will making the complaint about a character flaw, rather than a specific incident, like “Why would anyone do that?”

Defensiveness: When one partner acts as if the other is attacking them. Instead of directly responding to a statement, for example, the defensive partner might respond with a “counter-attack” like “What are you complaining about? You’re worse than I am!”

Contempt: Any statement or action which implies you are a better person than your partner, like mockery or eye-rolling. There is a facial expression for contempt, which Gottman also codes for. This is a version of  the sneer, from

Stonewalling: When one partner removes themselves in some way from the conversation. This can be by leaving or ceasing to respond. Often this is combined with attempts to not show emotion on the face. This is the worst of the horsemen, just ahead of contempt. It seems to be quite difficult for a relationship with this kind of behavior to remain viable.

Gottman says that some amount of four-horsemen behaviors (except contempt, which apparently never happens in happy couples) are inevitable, and that what is critical is not that they don’t happen, but that they are repaired by soothing, softening, or meta-communicating.


Virginia Satir lays out three sets of criteria for terminating treatment with a couple–criteria which, when met show that therapy has been successful. This is my favorite set, from p. 228 of Conjoint Family Therapy. The individuals in the couple can:

Be direct, using the first person “I” and following with statements or questions which:



Acknowledge an observation

Find fault

Report annoyance

Identify being puzzled

Be delineated, by using language which clearly shows “I am me” and “You are you.” “I am separate and apart from you and I acknowledge my own attributes as belonging to me. You are you, separate and apart from me, and I acknowledge your attributes as belonging to you.”

Be clear, by using questions and statements which reflect directness and the capacity to get knowledge of someone else’s statements, direction, or intentions, in order to accomplish an outcome.

I find these criteria charming, but I don’t think I will be able to use them overtly, for a couple reasons. First, insurance companies want a DSM diagnosis and a clear resolution of the Mental Disorders indicated. Satir did not speak their language. She didn’t like to label people.

Second, supervisors tend to want behavioral definitions of specific problems, so our treatment plans can say things like “The couple reports arguments have decreased from 4 times a week to 2 times a week, and that the intensity of those arguments have decreased from 7 to 4 on a 10 point scale.” This can be more collaborative and transparent with clients. It can appear to make things measured and therefore authoritative and amenable to research. I will have to write my treatment plans like that during school and probably any time I’m working for someone else. I’ll get good at it. Maybe I’ll come to like it.

Family therapy got started when the grandparents of the field, interested in cybernetics–the science of self-regulating systems–started studying communication in families. Some of the more interesting ideas they came up with were the three progressively more problematic kinds of contradiction. This is a summary of Virginia Satir’s version of those contradictions, from Conjoint Family Therapy:

Simple contradiction: This is when a person says two things that contradict each other straightforwardly, as when someone might say, “I love you but I don’t love you.” This kind of contradiction consists of assertions that are incompatible, but at least out in the open, in an easily decodable way. That means that the receiver of the message can easily comment on the contradiction, saying “I don’t understand what you mean. You didn’t make sense to me just then.”

Paradoxical (or incongruent) communication: A paradox is a special kind of contradiction, where the incompatible statements exist on different “logical levels.” That is, one of the statements is part of the context of the other statement. These are significantly more difficult to decode and comment on. The two logical levels in human communication are usually verbal and non-verbal behavior, where the non-verbal behavior is the context for the verbal. For example (from p.83) “A says, ‘I hate you,’ and smiles.” If A had said “I hate you” with an angry look on their face, that would be congruent, but what does “I hate you” mean in the context of a smile? This is more confusing than the simple contradiction, both because it is more difficult to track the two levels of communication simultaneously, and because we have unspoken social norms against commenting about how someone is speaking. Consequently, it takes more awareness and bravery to question the speaker’s intent when they present you with this kind of contradictory communication. (Satir calls paradoxical communication “incongruent communication.”) Being able to metacommunicate, or comment on the communication going on, is the major tool of the psychotherapist. We don’t usually know it, but this skill is the main thing we go to therapists for.

The double bind: The double bind is a special kind of paradoxical communication that was first laid out in Watzlawick and colleagues’ Pragmatics of Human Communication. A double bind is a paradox with two additional rules, giving four total requirements:

1) A verbal statement

2) A contradictory non-verbal context

3) A rule that you are not allowed to metacommunicate

4) A rule that you are not allowed to leave the field

This happens to people all the time. Children, especially, mercilessly, unconsciously, are put in this position a lot because they are not in a position to leave their parents “field.” They are completely subject to their parents on every level.

Here’s an example: A parent, obviously stressed out, tense, and in pain for whatever reason, says to their child, “I love you.” This puts the child into a double bind, because the statement is contradicted by the “I don’t love you” expressed by the parents’ body language and facial expression. That’s 1) and 2). Third is that the child can’t comment on the contradiction because they don’t have the tools, and even if they did, and said something like, “Mom, I hear you saying that you love me but it doesn’t really seem like you love me right now. It seems like you’re having other feelings,” the child would almost certainly be punished in some way for being insubordinate, for questioning the parent’s love, for questioning the parent’s word, for making the parent feel uncomfortable. Fourth is that the child is not allowed to leave the field. That is, even if they had the communication tools, the awareness, and the bravery, they have no where else to go if they are rejected by the parent. Their lives are dependent on the love and support of the parent. They are stuck in the field. To cope, they “learn” one or both of the following:

I am not lovable. My parent knows this, and I have figured it out, but at least they are pretending that they love me, which keeps me alive, so I’ll go along with the pretense that they love me.

I may be lovable, but love feels awful. Still, it’s the best thing available.

Then the child grows up and, having their own children, perpetuate the process, being a pretending-to-be-lovable parent with awful-feeling love to give to the next generation. Not only that, but they develop adaptations to this way of living that look like DSM-diagnosable Mental Disorder conditions.

Metacommunication and congruent communication: Notice that metacommunication is the key out of all of these situations. In the case of a true double bind, you might need the help of someone else’s (a therapist’s or friend’s) metacommunication, but metacommunication is still the key. Someone needs to stand up and say, “I’m confused! Can we slow down here and talk about what we’re talking about? What can you say to me right now that your body language and facial expression will agree with?”

Many years ago, my friend Chad told me if he could make even a very modest living fighting racism, that is what he would do with his life. The idea had never occurred to me before. In that conversation we also talked about how it was really only people who were on the fence about race that were good targets for intervention; good luck changing the mind of an entrenched racist! So where do you find these on-the-fence-folks, and how do you make a living working with them? We made no more progress on the question.

Lee Mun Wah does just what we imagined. He is a “diversity and communication trainer” and the founder of Stirfry Seminars & Consulting. The population of Whites he works with are a lot more egalitarian-minded than I had imagined necessary, back in those relatively naive days–they are Whites who consider racism appalling but don’t see their own part in perpetuating it.

I watched these clips from Lee Mun Wah’s documentary of one of his groups, called The Color of Fear. It was some of the most moving footage I’ve seen this year. If you watch it, watch both clips to the end, and be prepared for some members to express anger. (Keep in mind that (according to my teachers) both David and Victor became diversity and communication trainers after this film was made.) This is incredible work. I hope I get the opportunity to lead groups like this in my career.

I’m reading Virginia Satir’s Conjoint Family Therapy. She was this amazing, giant, super-loving woman, one of the founders of the field of family therapy–kind of the Julia Child of family therapy. I’m learning her style of therapy, possibly in part because I was introduced to her work very young, maybe 11 or 12. My mom bought me Elgin’s The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. It was my first introduction to going meta on communication–thinking and talking about communication, a very useful skill, possibly the central skill of a therapist.

I’m really enjoying reading the original Satir. One of her (many) assertions is that pretty much any time you say anything you are making a request. It could be a request for any number of behaviors, but ultimately they are all requests for some kind of validation. The difference between functional and dysfunctional communication is how overt your requests are. Here’s one of her examples (p. 86):


“Let’s see a movie,” or even better, “I would like to see a movie with you.”


“You would like to see a movie, wouldn’t you.”

“It would do you good to see a movie.”

“If you want to see a movie, we’ll see one.”

“We might as well see a movie. It’s Saturday night.”

“There’s a new movie house down the street.”

“My voices are ordering me to see a movie.”

Dysfunctional requests require decoding. If both the sender and receiver of the communication are clear about the codes they use, this is fine, but in general, the more decoding required, the more trouble you get into.

The problem is, if you make a clear request, you can be clearly denied your request. You make yourself vulnerable by saying “Let’s see a movie,” or “Do you like me?” because the answer could be “No.” Unless your self-esteem is quite high, a “No” hurts.

If you send a code, say, “There’s a new movie house down the street,” you can pretend that you’re not putting yourself out there. If your receiver says, “I don’t want to see a movie,” you can say, “What do you mean? I was just commenting on the new building.” Or your receiver can say “No” in code, maybe, “Yeah, that place looks like a dump.” Then things are really fuzzy. You don’t know if they decoded your message accurately, and they don’t know if your message was coded in the first place. It might feel like protection–it might even be protection–but it’s confusing and it lacks intimacy.

Why do we code our requests? We learn to. Maybe we’ve learned not to trust our receiver with a vulnerable request–the way they responded to such requests in the past have been painful. Or maybe it’s just habit, left over from accumulated painful experiences from our younger years. It could be part of your family’s culture, and uncoded requests seem harsh or demanding.

Try watching your communication. How coded is it? How do you feel when you imagine speaking in less coded requests? And try being vulnerable. Try to do even better than Satir’s, “I would like to see a movie with you.” Unpack it more. If you can say with honesty, “Hey, I really like you and I’d like to spend time with you tonight, watching a movie. What do you say?” then do it!

My friend Grace is flying to Ethiopia today to meet her adopted son, Yared, for the first time. What a journey to make! My thoughts are with her. Last Sunday I was at her baby shower, a moving ritual arranged by our friend, Kyla. There were lots of flowers and food, but instead of presents, we each brought a story–something we loved about how our parents were with us. We told them to Grace and wrote them down for a book for her to keep. It was lovely. I cried, off and on, hearing all of those beautiful, funny, endearing stories. Here’s what I wrote:

Hi Grace. Off the top of my head, I love how my parents sang a lot. My mom sang around the house, washing dishes or whatever, whatever song was in her head. I remember her singing the Oompaloompa song from the other room after we’d recently watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I remember thinking that she sounded so good–just right. My dad sang to us every night at bedtime. He’d come up  to me and Ely’s room after we were tucked in and sing us a few songs with his guitar. I had no idea how special that was–it was just something that happened, but it’s such a warm memory now. They were usually the same songs but I never got tired of them. One of them was Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Pony Man.” That was my favorite. One was “I Been Working on the Railroad.” He also sang an odd little song I’ve never heard anywhere else that went “What do you do in a case like that?/What do you do but stamp on your hat?/And your nail file and your toothbrush/And anything else that’s helpless.” Hilarious!

But writing about my bedtime made me think of a larger story about how I was parented. My days and weeks–my life–as a kid were punctuated with so many fun, comforting rituals. Bedtime was the best. My dad’s singing was the last part of a great time. My mom read to us from a chapter book every night. I could count on it. I could anticipate it with total safety. I loved it. And yes, sometimes I cried when she was ready to stop, because I wasn’t ready for her to stop, but I also looked forward to it the next night. We brushed our teeth together in our tiny bathroom, and my dad would call out the checklist of things we might need to do before bed, “OK, pee, poop, throw up, brush your teeth, go to bed,” and then, while brushing, the dental geography, “Bottoms of the tops, tops of the bottoms….” My mom would tuck us in, and gave us our choice of a back or head scratch.

That was just bedtime. We ate all of our meals together as a family. Each kind of meal had its own ritual. My dad’s dishes all had names that he announced with triumph: “Lentissimo Magnifico!” was one of his lentil dishes. He could be counted on (and still can, now that I think of it) to remind us that broccoli were miniature trees and that beans were miniature potatoes. On Saturday mornings we baked bread and Saturday nights we ate pizza on the homemade pizza crusts. On Sunday mornings we had pancakes. Every two weeks we’d all go out to the local dairy and watch the cows get milked. My parents bought the milk before they pasteurized it. We’d sit around the living room, shaking quart jars of fresh, whole milk until it separated. We made butter from the cream and (usually chocolate, s0metimes tapioca) pudding from the whey. We had regular nights with foot rides or crazy eights or The Muppet Show. There were great wrestling matches, the brothers against my dad. We’d apparently pin him every once in a while and he’d say “Now any normal person wouldn’t be able to move right now…” and that meant we were about to get (gently) tossed around the room.

I think I was an extra-sensitive kid, so maybe I was a special case–I mean, I don’t know that this will apply to Yared–but I’m so grateful to my parents for all of the regular, predictable, fun, comforting moments. They created structure for my days, gave me things to look forward to, cushioned the blows when things didn’t go my way. They also created a culture for the family: This is what life is like for us. This is what it feels like to be a Lester. There were exciting times, too, of course.  Like ice cream once a year or so. Or Disneyland, or relatives visiting. Or the couple times that we moved. That kind of stuff made vivid memories, being so rare, but it is the predictable stuff that I feel so warmly about.

As I’m thinking about all that, too, I’m reminded of the communication theory I’ve been learning in my Couples and Family Therapy program. In it, human communication exists on two levels. One is the obvious, content level–what the words mean. The other is a higher level communication, a non-verbal assertion about the nature of the relationship. The non-verbal sets the context for all of the other communication, colors it. One thing about non-verbal communication is that there’s no negative term. You can’t say, for example, “I will not hurt you” with non-verbal behavior. All you can do is put yourself in a position where you could hurt someone, and then not do it. One book, Pragmatics of Human Communication uses the image of an animal communicating to another that it will not hurt them by taking their throat in its jaws and not biting down. It seems like being a parent (and maybe part of any relationship) is to be constantly in that position. It seems to me that love is like that. The words “I love you” do not convey love by themselves. I appreciate so much how my parents showed me their love–rather than telling me about it–in all of these little, regular, predictable ways, making me feel comfortable and cared for, giving me a safe physical and emotional space to explore myself and the world in.