Dr. Gottman’s writings are based on research conducted with hundreds of couples spanning over 35 years. His proven methods are outlined in several very helpful books. In one of his books, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman discusses the signs which predict divorce. One of these signs he has deemed, “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse,” because of their destructive power to a relationship. When couples are in conflict and use the Four Horsemen to try to win the argument they damage the relationship, sometimes beyond repair.
The first of four is criticism. People often have complaints about their partner’s behavior. While criticism is close to a complaint, a criticism is much more personal and is an attack on the partner’s character. An example would be, after a husband forgot to pay a bill, “You were supposed to remember to pay the bill yesterday. You are completely irresponsible!” This attacks the spouse’s character, rather than the problem. Criticism is the most common horseman, and must be kept in check, as it leads into the other horsemen.
The second Horseman of the Apocalypse is defensiveness. Defensiveness can be dangerous, as one spouse may think it’s necessary to relieve themselves of guilt by putting the blame on the other. What the spouse is saying, in effect is, “There’s not a problem with me, the problem’s with you.” When a spouse makes an excuse, or is defensive the partner will rarely accept the excuse as valid. Typically, the more defensive one spouse becomes, the more the other will attack.
Contempt is the worst of the horseman. It is more than just criticizing the other. Contempt is treating the partner as if he or she is less than, is inferior in some way. It sometimes can be seen in a small gesture, such as an eye-roll, or blatant name calling, sarcasm or mockery. Contempt never leads to an argument being resolved. Typically, it escalates the argument. Contempt is a slow poison that destroys relationship over time as arguments go unresolved.
The last horseman to arrive is stonewalling. Stonewalling often comes later than the other three horsemen. Stonewalling is the result of a constant barrage by the other three horsemen. It is the act of completely ignoring the other partner. For example, when a husband comes home late at night and he is greeted by harsh questioning, contempt, and ridicule, he may stonewall, simply ignoring his partner as she speaks to him before he goes to bed. This horseman is a sign that strong negativity has persisted in the marriage for quite some time.
Question of the week: Have you or your partner noticed any of these “horsemen” in your arguments?
Next week’s blog: The Antidotes to the Four Horsemen!