Dr John Gottman- the country’s foremost relationship expert- has studied couples for more than forty years. He has also been able to predict which marriages will succeed and which will ultimately end in divorce with more than 90% accuracy!
How does he do it? Well, he has studied more than 3,000 couples- monitoring how they interact with one another, how they change over time, how they fight, and how they repair.
One of the qualities in a relationship which forecasts its eventual demise is the presence of what Gottman refers to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The Four Horseman are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
Let’s take a look at criticism, the first of the four horsemen. No matter your relationship- no matter who you decide to marry- there will always be conflict. There will be things that you will complain about or find annoying about your partner- always.
There is a world of difference, however, between a complaint and a crisiticism. A complaint is specific and labels the situation as the issue. A criticism, on the other hand, is aimed at your partner themselves and attacks their character.
Let’s say your partner has forgetten to take out the trash… again.
A complaint would be telling your partner about the situation and how it affects you.
“I know that you’ve been really busy lately, but you forgot to take out the trash last night. Now the apartment stinks, and I feel disgusted.”
A criticism, on the other hand, might sound more like this:
“You forgot to take the trash out last night, and now the whole apartment stinks. I can’t count on you for anything.”
Some people may even take this a step further by adding in some sarcasm, name-calling, cynicism, or hostile humor. This is a sign of the most destructive of the horseman- contempt.
Contempt is when one partner belittles or looks down upon the other. Some people may refer to it as taking the moral high ground or the “I’m so much better than you”. This often shows up in a partner’s body language and posture through sneering and eye-rolling.
When we feel attacked in this way, it is natural that we may employ the third horseman- defensiveness.
“It was your turn to take out the trash! Why is it always my responsibility?”
“It’s not that bad. You’re just overreacting and being a neat freak again.”
A partner who perceives they are being attacked again and again may shut down entirely. If nothing they say can make the situation better, why say anything at all?
This introduces the fourth horseman into the relationship- stonewalling..
A partner who is stonewalling will likely turn away from their partner physically and look down at the floor. They won’t say anything, won’t budge no matter the partner’s response or how loud they get.
It’s clear at this point that nothing constructive will come out of the conversation and both partners will be left feeling hurt and unheard.
It’s pretty common for couples to say, “yep. that’s us.” (or sometimes just, “yep. that’s him/her.) The Four Horsemen may occasionally show up in even the most stable and happy relationship, but they don’t linger.
There are also things you can do to make repairs to your relationship should one or more of the horsemen be present. Over the next few weeks, I will talk about each of the horsemen in more detail and share antidotes for each one.