The Four Horseman of the Marriage Apocalypse
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV
Psychologists John and Julie Gottman have dedicated their careers to studying why some marriages are healthy and long-lasting while others are difficult and often end in divorce. Responding favorably to “bids” made by a spouse was a major factor.
Gottman has also identified four specific issues that can make or break a relationship. He dubbed these, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. If left unchecked, these four “relational viruses” will infect and damage a relationship. When they are addressed and controlled, relationships become healthy and flourish.
These four issues are toxic in all our relationships: with our spouse, children, relatives, friends, and coworkers.
Criticism focuses on a person’s flaws and judges them. It attacks someone’s character rather than addressing specific behaviors. It is expressed through constant disapproving, critiquing, correcting, blaming, nitpicking, or trying to fix someone. It’s not meant to be constructive or encouraging—just shaming. Criticism focuses on the negative and doesn’t offer suggestions for solutions and improvement.
Here’s a good article by Jessica Higgins on why criticism is toxic to relationships.
Often, when someone criticizes us, instead of listening carefully and owning our offenses, we become defensive. We refuse to admit wrongdoing and deny any responsibility. We refute our partner’s perspective and even reverse the accusation and cast blame on him or her. As a result, problems are not resolved and conflicts escalate. The solution is to accept responsibility for your part in the problem, even if it is a small part.
Contempt is the most toxic issue. Its presence in a marriage is the greatest predictor of divorce. Contempt speaks from a position of moral superiority and includes sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. It is arrogant disregard, dismissal, and denigration of another person’s concerns. Contempt is, in the words of the 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” It is marked by disgust and disdain and is destructive and defeating.
Stonewalling occurs when we remove ourselves from a conversation and refuse to discuss contentious issues. We can physically stonewall someone by walking out of the room during a difficult conversation or by totally avoiding our partner by being absent. We can emotionally stonewall someone by becoming passive and expressionless; we are physically present but simply tune out the conversation.
Our challenge is how to apply Gottman’s insight to our relationships. First, analyze yourself. To what degree are you guilty of these four unhealthy behaviors? Second, acknowledge that they are manageable and commit to change. It would be beneficial for you and your partner to talk about this post and together analyze your relationship.
Here’s an article that discusses the antidote for each of the four hinderances.
The Antidote to Criticism: Gentle Start-Up
A complaint focuses on a specific behavior, but criticism attacks a person’s very character. The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame by using a soft or gentle start-up. Avoid saying “you,” which can indicate blame, and instead talk about your feelings using “I” statements and express what you need in a positive way.
To put it simply, think of these two things to formulate your soft start-up: What do I feel? What do I need?
Criticism: “You always talk about yourself. Why are you always so selfish?”
Antidote: “I’m feeling left out of our talk tonight and I need to vent. Can we please talk about my day?”
Notice that the antidote starts with “I feel,” leads into “I need,” and then respectfully asks to fulfill that need. There’s no blame or criticism, which prevents the discussion from escalating into an argument.
The Antidote to Contempt: Build a Culture of Appreciation and Respect
Contempt shows up in statements that come from a position of moral superiority. Some examples of contempt include sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. Contempt is destructive and defeating. It is the greatest predictor of divorce, and it must be avoided at all costs.
The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation and respect in your relationship, and there are a few ways to do that. One of our mottos is Small Things Often: if you regularly express appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner, you’ll create a positive perspective in your relationship that acts as a buffer for negative feelings. The more positive you feel, the less likely that you’ll feel or express contempt!
Another way that we explain this is our discovery of the 5:1 “magic ratio” of positive to negative interactions that a relationship must have to succeed. If you have five or more positive interactions for every one negative interaction, then you’re making regular deposits into your emotional bank account, which keeps your relationship in the green.
Contempt: “You forgot to load the dishwasher again? Ugh. You are so incredibly lazy.” (Rolls eyes.)
Antidote: “I understand that you’ve been busy lately, but could you please remember to load the dishwasher when I work late? I’d appreciate it.”
The antidote here works so well because it expresses understanding right off the bat. This partner shows how they know that the lack of cleanliness isn’t out of laziness or malice, and so they do not make a contemptuous statement about their partner or take any position of moral superiority.
Instead, this antidote is a respectful request, and it ends with a statement of appreciation.
The Antidote to Defensiveness: Take Responsibility
Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand.
Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying that the problem isn’t me, it’s you. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.
Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault that we’re going to be late. It’s your fault since you always get dressed at the last second.”
Antidote: “I don’t like being late, but you’re right. We don’t always have to leave so early. I can be a little more flexible.”
By taking responsibility for part of the conflict (trying to leave too early), even while asserting that they don’t like to be late, this partner prevents the conflict from escalating by admitting their role in the conflict. From here, this couple can work towards a compromise.
The Antidote to Stonewalling: Physiological Self-Soothing
Stonewalling is when someone completely withdraws from a conflict discussion and no longer responds to their partner. It usually happens when you’re feeling flooded or emotionally overwhelmed, so your reaction is to shut down, stop talking, and disengage. And when couples stonewall, they’re under a lot of emotional pressure, which increases heart rates, releases stress hormones into the bloodstream, and can even trigger a fight-or-flight response.
In one of our longitudinal research studies, we interrupted couples after fifteen minutes of an argument and told them we needed to adjust the equipment. We asked them not to talk about their issue, but just to read magazines for half an hour. When they started talking again, their heart rates were significantly lower and their interaction was more positive and productive.
What happened during that half hour? Each partner, without even knowing it, physiologically soothed themselves by reading and avoiding discussion. They calmed down, and once they felt calm, they were able to return to the discussion in a respectful and rational way.
Therefore, the antidote to stonewalling is to practice physiological self-soothing, and the first step of self-soothing is to stop the conflict discussion and call a timeout:
“Look, we’ve been through this over and over again. I’m tired of reminding you—”
“Honey, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m feeling overwhelmed and I need to take a break. Can you give me twenty minutes and then we can talk?”
If you don’t take a break, you’ll find yourself either stonewalling and bottling up your emotions, or you’ll end up exploding at your partner, or both, and neither will get you anywhere good.
So, when you take a break, it should last at least twenty minutes because it will take that long before your body physiologically calms down. It’s crucial that during this time you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore”) and innocent victimhood (“Why is he always picking on me?”). Spend your time doing something soothing and distracting, like listening to music, reading, or exercising. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as it helps you to calm down.
You’ve got the skills. Use them!
Now that you know what the Four Horsemen are and how to counteract them with their proven antidotes, you’ve got the essential tools to manage conflict in a healthy way. As soon as you see criticism or contempt galloping in, remember their antidotes. Be vigilant. The more you can keep the Four Horsemen at bay, the more likely you are to have a stable and happy relationship.