Couples and The Four Horsemen

John Gottman has helped hundreds of thousands of couples, and many of them don’t even realize it. That’s because of the work Gottman has done in marital therapy research over a lifetime of work at the University of Washington and now the Gottman Institute. Dr. Gottman’s research on why couples divorce has been used for years in the New Beginning workshop, offered by Family Dynamics Institute, where I’ve served as a consultant to churches for the past five years. More recently, Malcolm Gladwell highlighted Gottman’s research in the book Blink, which brought this research to a new audience and suggested ways that this theory of relational failure might apply to other relationships outside marriage.

What makes Gottman’s research unique is the incredible attention to detail, along with a relentless search for what works (and more importantly, what doesn’t work) in marital therapy. Gottman used countless hours of observation of the “masters” of marriage to find out what made them different from the “disasters” of marriage. The use of physiological measurements, careful video and audio recordings and interviews, and painstaking documentation helped Gottman to learn within a brief observation of a couple in conflict whether or not they are headed toward divorce.

Gottman uses the term “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalpyse” as a memorable way of describing something that happens far too often, when couples fall into a negative pattern that ultimately leads them to give up hope for the marriage. The Four Horsemen are called: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling.

1. Criticism

Couples frequently have complaints or disagreements in their marriage. Anger, in itself, is not what causes couples to divorce. In fact, Gottman’s research has shown that roughly 70% of couples have chronic unresolved marital disagreements. What makes couples divorce is not the presence of these disagreements, but rather how they navigate around them. Healthy couples find ways to avoid topics that they know will be “landmines” in their marriage, or they use humor or other successful ways to repair after times of conflict. The thing that makes criticism different and dangerous is that it involves a blanket judgment about the person instead of a specific concern, or involves a negative character judgment about the other person. There is a difference between saying:

You were late, and I’m feeling frustrated about that!

and saying:

You’re always late! Why can’t you show me the common courtesy of being on time for things?

Another way that criticism can be destructive is what happens when couples store up resentments and then use what Gottman calls “kitchen sinking,” where a long list of complaints is leveled against another person and is meant to demonstrate how the other person has repeatedly displeased you. It’s no longer a discussion, it’s a lecture or filibuster against the other partner. There is no effort to reach mutual understanding. The goal is to convince or persuade the other person that you’re right about your character judgment.

2. Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a natural response to criticisms or attacks. But when couples get into a “blame-defend” cycle, they lose their ability to be with each other and start acting like enemies. It’s one reason why, when addiction is part of a family system, arguments tend to turn into arguments about who’s right and wrong versus about what works and how family members are feeling. Addiction is the disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease, and so many families get stuck in patterns where the addicted person resists the family’s efforts to confront the behavior.

I’ve seen two types of defensiveness in my work with couples and families. One type of defensiveness is a natural response to criticism. The person being criticized looks for exceptions to the rule (“I was on time every day last week, and now you’re jumping on me for being five minutes late?”), or tries to make excuses to minimize any potential hurt that was caused. The goal here is to preserve the relational status quo and avoid the hurt of becoming enemies or adversaries with your critics. The other type of defensiveness comes from a desire to hold others at an arm’s length or avoid intimacy. This evasive defensiveness makes honest and open conversations difficult, because the evader is trying to avoid accountability or exposure that might put him in a negative light. It’s not necessarily a response to criticism, but it often leads to more criticism because the other partner is trying to break through resistance.

3. Contempt

Contempt can take the form of hostile humor, insults, or sarcastic remarks, but more often, it’s a simple eye roll or a turn of the head that shows a rejection or disgust with the other person. This is especially toxic in relationships because it leads one partner to talk down to the other. Gottman uses the example of correcting your spouse’s grammar when they’re arguing with you. It totally misses connection and places one partner in a position of rejecting the other’s influence and invalidating their perspective. Contempt makes disagreements unproductive because there is no way to create a shared platform for really listening or understanding. Conflict with contempt is more about who’s up and who’s down, like that old playground game, “King of the Mountain”.

4. Stonewalling

Stonewallers don’t respond in normal ways to demonstrate that they’re listening. They begin to tune out, and often this is related to a state of physiological arousal that is so intense that they can’t respond without escalating. As a result of this emotional flooding (and the physical arousal that comes from that), conflict cannot be resolved and relational repair is either delayed or denied. Stonewalling often leads to an escalation of criticism and contempt from the other partner, which creates a vicious cycle of anger and withdrawal. Unless couples learn to repair and redirect, they will inevitably become so unhappy that the marriage will become a disaster.

The presence of the Four Horsemen is a strong predictor of marital failure, and so eliminating the Four Horsemen from a marriage is absolutely critical to repairing the marriage. Part of the therapy process is identifying the presence of these behaviors and then beginning to find ways to respond differently and repair the damage caused by these toxic interactions. One important first step is to stop trying to diagnose the other person’s character defects (criticism) and begin talking more about specific complaints (and feelings) instead of making blanket judgments.

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