Dr John Gottman, the well known author and therapist, is widely acclaimed for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction. Gottman is certain that he knows exactly what causes a marriage to fail, and he uses an unusual symbol in his analysis of the communication styles that he says often precede divorce – the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
Commonly interpreted by theologians to be conquest, war, hunger, and death, Gottman’s horsemen are instead criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. These four styles of communication, says Gottman, spell an apocalyptic end to your marriage!
Criticism, Gottman’s first horseman, is different than expressing a complaint or critiquing something in a positive way, he says. Instead, criticism refers to a direct attack on your partner, which is completely different. For example:
- Complaint: I was so worried about you when you didn’t call home like you said you would! Please don’t do that again, it’s very stressful for me.
- Criticism: You told me you’d call and you didn’t! You’re irresponsible and selfish. You never think about the consequences of your actions.
Contempt, the second horseman, means treating your partner in a way that disrespects, belittles, and demeans them. Mocking someone, openly disregarding their opinions, or displaying ridicule for what they have said or done are all examples. Gottman says this behavior is cruel, and undermines your spouse’s worth as a person. For example:
- Contempt: Oh your life is so hard, isn’t it? I slave all day here doing dishes and laundry and running around after the kids, and all you do is come home and collapse on the couch in front of the TV. Poor you, somebody should give you a medal.
- The non-contemptuous alternative: I’m sorry you had a hard day. I had a rough day too and I’m feeling a bit emotionally stretched right now. Let’s talk about it later when we’re both more relaxed.
Defensiveness, the third horseman, Gottman describes as being more commonplace in relationships, especially struggling ones. But when it becomes the predominant method of communication, and we start blaming our partners for our own shortcomings and lashing out when we feel accused, it can destroy a relationship. For example:
- Defensiveness: No, I didn’t stop at the store on the way home, I shouldn’t have to! I’m already overloaded with other commitments and you know that! You should’ve taken care of it yourself!
- The non-defensive alternative: Oh sorry! I completely forgot about that. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately with all this extra work and I should have told you I wouldn’t have time.
Stonewalling, the last and final horseman, is when one partner shuts the other one out in an effort to put off dealing with difficult issues. Tuning out, refusing to respond when confronted, and acting as if you don’t have time to address an issue is stonewalling. According to Gottman, it’s very dangerous for a relationship, and can often mean it’s undoing.
But, as Gottman explains, identifying these behaviors in your marriage is the first step toward making positive changes. So don’t give up hope. With time and dedication, all bad habits can be turned around and your marriage could be salvaged before it ends in divorce.