In the Book of Revelation, the Bible talks about Four Horsemen that will herald the apocalypse. Symbolizing pestilence, war, famine, and death, these Horsemen are meant to be the signs that indicate that the end of the world is imminent.
Borrowing from this Biblical illustration, Dr. John Gottman identified the four most critical indicators of marital separation: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Based on his study of over 2,000 couples for more than twenty years, he was able to identify especially problematic communication styles that could bring about the end of a marriage.
In fact, if these factors were left unaddressed, he could predict the end of the marriage with over 90% accuracy.
However, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Gottman also found that for each Horseman, there is an antidote that will help give your marriage a fighting chance.
Gottman sought to determine the most important predictors of marital failure and divorce. He took a look at many of the ways that couples communicate, including facial expressions, physiology, how they talked about each other and their relationship. And what he and other researchers found was that couples with the Four Horsemen present in their marriage were likely to divorce 5.6 years after their wedding day.
Most couples might think that other factors might be worse for a marriage than these Four Horsemen. However, this is not necessarily the case. For example, on average, emotionally disengaged couples would divorce 16 years after their wedding, meaning that marriages with this issue would typically last nearly 3 times longer than those with criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
The Four Horsemen are to be taken very seriously. In fact, of the Four, contempt is the most destructive. It is the strongest predictor of relationship failure. But Gottman found that these behaviors are related and that there is typically a sequence to them. Starting with criticism, couples shift to defensiveness, contempt, and finally shut each other out with stonewalling.
Despite the fact that these issues can lead to divorce, they often do not stop people from forming new romantic relationships. While the presence of the Four Horsemen can cause you to end your marriage, they are unlikely to cause the end of a premarital relationship. As a result, it is common for couples to get married despite having experienced these issues.
This doesn’t mean that the Four Horsemen are nonexistent in healthy marriages. What helps marriages succeed is confronting these issues together. While sometimes you tend to overlook serious issues during the dating phase of your relationship, if you are committed to your marriage, you will need to face these behaviors in yourself head-on.
The Four Horsemen
Let’s examine how each Horseman impacts your marriage.
This is anything that communicates that your spouse is not worthy of your consideration or respect. Rather than focusing on behavior, criticism typically assaults character. The negative effects are often compounded by globalizing which happens when you use terms like “you always…” or “you never…”.
Criticism makes mistakes or even small incidents bigger than they should be and paints them as a result of permanent character flaws in your spouse. It accuses them of being such a bad person that they are not worthy of respect. Criticism inhibits addressing and modifying specific behaviors, instead offering suggestions as to why the other person will never change because of who they are.
Voicing criticism is different from simply voicing concern and displeasure, which are important and healthy practices in any relationship. But rather than helping you and your spouse learn and grow, criticism is destructive.
When you criticize your spouse, you destroy your view of them, their view of you, and even their view of themselves. And the more you undermine them, the more they may have to respond defensively or even offensively in order to protect their sense of positive self-identity. This vicious cycle only escalates, increasing in frequency and intensity.
The cycle of criticism leads to defensiveness in the receiving party, eventually creating contempt for one another.
Attacked spouses will often use defensiveness as a tool to reduce the sting of criticism. It can also be used to deny accountability, reject feedback because of how it was delivered, or as an offensive ploy during conflict.
Let’s assume for a moment that your defensiveness is not in response to criticism. You’re just uncomfortable with the negative feedback being given to you. Instead of accepting responsibility for your actions, you find yourself deflecting, diverting, or disposing of accusations against you. Defensiveness takes many forms, but at the end of the day, it is typically a refusal to accept blame or fault.
While criticism is a damaging way of communicating, defensiveness exacerbates (or initiates) a cycle of poor conflict resolution behaviors. The defensive spouse will refuse to accept blame, and the critical spouse will refuse to back down feel the need to accuse more severely in order to get through to their spouse.
The Four Horsemen
One common thread in the Four Horsemen is the refusal to listen to your spouse. We’ve put together a couple of exercises that will help you learn to listen to each other and start to undo the damage done by any of the Four Horsemen in your marriage. Head over to our Patreon page and pick up this exercise today!
The purpose of contempt is to cause psychological suffering to someone else by showing disgust. You might insult, use name-calling, mockery, or roll your eyes. These behaviors come from an absence of regard or admiration for your spouse.
In some ways, contempt may be a misguided attempt to lead your spouse out of a difficult or problematic situation. For example, after all the complaints you’ve made with no effect, your last resort might be to insult them as a last-ditch effort to get them to follow your prompting to make the changes you deem necessary. Or in your defensiveness, your desperate refusal to accept responsibility, you might try to hurt your spouse verbally to get them to stop accusing you of things.
But in the absence of patience and charity, you communicate (intentionally or not) that you are simply better than them; therefore they should admit their inferiority and follow your lead.
This sounds awful, and it really is awful to be on the receiving end of contempt. This is the reason why, of the Four Horsemen, contempt is one of the strongest indicators of a failing marriage. Its effect on relationships is so severe that it can even weaken immune systems, causing you to experience more colds, cases of the flu, and other infectious diseases than normal.
Allowing contempt to fester in your marriage will very likely lead to disaster.
In any marriage, it is crucial that you maintain open lines of communication. Stonewalling does the opposite. It involves distancing yourself from your spouse psychologically or physically.
Stonewalling takes many forms, but they all involve a sort of disengagement from your spouse. You might stop actively participating in a discussion, just saying, “mmhmm” every couple minutes while you scroll through your phone. You might say that you’re busy and have to work on other things. Or you might just get up and walk away from the conflict or conversation entirely.
This strategy is primarily used by men: over 80% of stonewalling is done by males. In best-case scenarios, stonewalling is another misguided way to preserve a relationship by avoiding conflict entirely with your spouse. In other cases, it can also be used as a method of manipulation and punishment (the “silent treatment”).
Regardless of intent, stonewalling is an isolating strategy because it disconnects you and your spouse rather than bringing you closer.
It’s easy to look at the Four Horsemen and think that all you need to do is avoid these behaviors. But it’s more effective to find ways of replacing these unhelpful behaviors rather than simply trying to stop doing them. This is why Gottman provides alternatives to replace the Four Horsemen.
Learn to Complain: The Antidote to Criticism
Often, complaining is treated as a synonym for criticizing. But instead of addressing problems by attacking your spouse (criticism), complaining involves talking about what you need. It involves opening a line of communication between you and your spouse, helping them see your side of the relationship, or to see themselves through your eyes.
Let’s look at a sample scenario. With your friends, your spouse decides to make a joke that doesn’t reflect well on you. Rather than using criticism such as, “Why are you always such an inconsiderate jerk?” try saying, “When you mock me in front of my friends (use precise language to elaborate on what you perceive as mocking), I feel belittled and humiliated.”
In doing this, you help your spouse understand how their words impact you. Instead of launching an attack at their character, a legitimate complaint shows your spouse the clear line between their action and its effect on you.
This strategy is more likely to result in a positive response than criticism and helps establish the fact that despite the complaint, you still believe in them. You provide a path towards empathy, leading towards a healthier, more intimate marriage.
Own What You Can: The Antidote to Defensiveness
Resorting to defensiveness involves avoiding responsibility at all costs. So in some ways, this antidote can be difficult. Rather than raising your defenses, you need to learn to lower your guard. You need to learn to be vulnerable with your spouse.
When you hear a complaint or even a criticism, be willing to be honest about what you could have done better or differently. Instead of viewing this as an attack, see this as an opportunity to learn from your spouse’s perspective. Own what you can so that you receive the benefit of the feedback (it becomes a learning moment) and they can see that you are willing to receive influence.
As much as possible, acknowledge the truth in their words. It might seem counterintuitive initially (especially if you’re accustomed to being defensive), but taking responsibility for your part will lead to less conflict, not more.
Work on Gratitude: The Antidote to Contempt
In many ways, contempt is dehumanizing. When you have contempt, you stop seeing your spouse as a whole, complete human being. You stop seeing their good qualities, virtues, and positive characteristics and only see the things that you don’t like about them.
By being grateful for your spouse, by offering kindness and respect, you can go a long way towards undoing the contempt you may have felt towards your spouse. When you pause and remind yourself of the things you love about your spouse, of their positive qualities, you will shift your attitude and treatment of them away from contempt.
Not only will gratitude help you and your spouse treat one another with respect, but it will help you as you work together to address the problem at hand. Learning to be thankful for your spouse’s positive attributes and actions will help protect your marriage from the threat of contempt.
Also note that if your struggles with contempt go beyond just your relationship with your spouse, the practice of gratitude will help you in those other areas as well.
Take a Break: The Antidote to Stonewalling
There is a key difference between taking a break and stonewalling: the purpose. Stonewalling is about completely disengaging with no intention of re-engaging, but taking a break is about gathering your thoughts and emotions so that you are better able to re-engage with your spouse on the issue.
And be careful to follow through on your commitment to re-engage. Otherwise, you are really just stonewalling under the pretense of taking a break.
If you are the non-stonewalling spouse, there are ways for you to help your significant other. When you notice your spouse becoming emotionally overwhelmed, offer a quick break, or dial back on the intensity yourself. Try to work with your spouse to discover the most effective way to engage with them on difficult issues.
If you are the stonewalling spouse, learn to ask for a break before you become overwhelmed. Try some quick physical activities like taking a short walk, splashing water on your face, or even doing a few pushups. Take a moment to ground yourself, then re-enter the discussion.
Again, this break is taken with the intention of being able to address the situation, not to leave it behind. By taking a break, you will strengthen your capacity to handle the emotional intensity that is required for you and your spouse to work through the issues that come your way.
The Four Horsemen are difficult foes to deal with in a marriage. But by acknowledging the problems and working together to overcome them, you might find that there is more hope for your marriage than you previously thought! As always, if you need any help feel free to set up a free consultation with us so that we can discuss marriage counseling options.
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