The Four Horsemen of the Relationship-pocalypse
Expert relationship researcher John Gottman spent years observing couples, collecting data, and unearthing patterns. Along the way, he isolated four signs that a marriage is headed for disaster (Gottman, 2015). These “four horsemen” often trot into a relationship in a particular order and then take turns wreaking havoc again and again. If allowed to run rampant, they can destroy a marriage. Let’s take a look at each one. Naming and learning to recognize each horseman will arm you with the knowledge to banish them swiftly if you see them begin to appear in your relationship.
What do you think is the difference between criticism and complaint? A complaint is a grievance about a specific issue or event, whereas a criticism is a more global negative feeling or opinion expressed about someone’s personality or character (Gottman, 2015). When you criticize your partner, you are sending an unspoken message that says “I don’t accept you as you are”. Take a look at the following example to understand the difference between criticism and complaint:
Complaint: I’m frustrated that you didn’t call or text to let me know you would arrive home late last night. I rushed to get dinner ready in time, and we’ve talked about this before. Could you make it a point to remember to let me know next time?
Criticism: I’m frustrated that you didn’t call or text to let me know you would arrive home late last night. I rushed to get dinner ready on time, and we’ve talked about this before. You’re so selfish sometimes. You need to get better at considering how your actions affect me!
While the first half of the criticism above matched the complaint, it’s the second half that became problematic because this person attacked the character of their partner. Sometimes, we begin with a complaint, but our emotions get the better of us and it quickly turns into a criticism.
Here’s one more example, where the complaint and criticism diverge even more:
Compliant: I felt sad when you didn’t introduce me to your friends that we ran into last night. It had me questioning whether you feel ashamed to be seen with me. Could you please let me know what you’re feeling, and perhaps introduce me next time?
Criticism: You didn’t introduce me to your friends. You are such a rude person sometimes!
Criticism is very common in relationships. It doesn’t always have to spell divorce. However, when it happens frequently, it weakens the relationship enough that the other (much more dangerous) horsemen can find their way in (Gottman, 2015).
Contempt in relationships arises from a sense of superiority over one’s partner (Gottman, 2015). It can take the form of eye-rolling, hostile humor, name-calling, mockery, cynicism, and sarcasm. Consider our friends Anna and Eric. They are discussing their prenup. Or more specifically, they’re discussing whether or not to get one. Anna wants a prenup; Eric doesn’t. They’re knee-deep in the conversation when it takes a turn for the worse: Eric sneers contemptuously at Anna and says “so you think this stupid piece of paper will ride in to save you when I divorce you? That’s what you’re assuming is going to happen, isn’t it?”
Eric’s contempt is not a good indicator for Anna and Eric’s ability to resolve their differences and address Eric’s obvious but mishandled fears that Anna doesn’t trust in his commitment. When contempt is present, it’s likely to lead to more conflict, not less (Gottman, 2015).
Contempt is not always as obvious as the above, or as seething words spoken through clenched teeth. One major sign of contempt in a conversation is called a harsh start-up. It means that a discussion about a difficult topic begins with criticism or sarcasm (Gottman, 2015).
Anna and Eric are sitting on the sofa watching How I Met Your Mother, and when the internet goes down and the little red wheel is stuck endlessly on ‘99%’, they begin talking. Eric brings up the prenup again. “I know the ooonnnllyyy real reason you want a prenup anyway is because you still think I’m as fickle as Barney”, Eric says sarcastically, nodding towards the tv. He says it in a lighthearted tone of voice, like he could be joking…but they both know his joke is based on a real fear he has.
Eric’s sarcastic little quip is a good indicator for how the conversation is going to end. A harsh start-up is a very reliable predictor of a conversation ending on a negative note, even if there are some positive moments and attempts to turn the conversation around in between. If the start-up is harsh, the best thing you can do is abort mission and try again when you both are feeling calmer and kinder (Gottman, 2015).
Contempt is often an attempt by one party to demean the other. It is extremely destructive and usually comes about as a result of unresolved differences that have been simmering under the surface for some time. It’s not only emotionally unhealthy, it’s physically unhealthy. So unhealthy that people in relationships which regularly include contemptuous interactions are more likely to catch viruses (such as the flu or a cold) than others (Gottman, 2015).
Defending yourself against attack is normal, isn’t it? Of course, defensiveness is a normal human reaction to criticism. Let’s go back to Eric and Anna. As predicted, their conversation has escalated in a most displeasing way. Now they’ve moved on to venting concerns that have nothing to do with their prenup. “You never mop the floor. It’s always me, even though we’re supposed to share housework! And what do you do? Putting clothes in the laundry basket hardly counts as housework, Anna!” snipes Eric. Anna cries “Eric, you know I have a bad back, mopping makes my back tense up, you know that! Plus, I do way more than just put laundry in the laundry basket!”
Unsurprisingly, Anna’s understandable but defensive reaction does little to help the situation, instead driving Eric higher up on his horse as he takes aim at her rebuttal. This is the problem with defensiveness. It just escalates the conflict further. In effect, defensiveness is a form of blame; it implies “the problem is you, not me”. What Anna is doing falls under the ‘innocent victim’ brand of defensiveness. Her reaction seems to say “why are you picking on me? What about all the good things I do?” (Gottman, 2015, p. 36). When was the last time your partner backed down and said “oh, ok, you’re right” when you reacted defensively?
The deadliest of the horsemen, stonewalling is when one party just shuts down completely and disengages from the other in the face of a stressful interaction. If Anna’s eventual response to Eric’s unhelpful comments about their prenup (or lack thereof) is to simply ignore him and leave the room or start sending messages on her phone, she is stonewalling. Stonewalling can actually come from a place of wanting to avoid an argument. Unfortunately, in avoiding the argument, the stonewaller is also avoiding his or her marriage (Gottman, 2015) and putting a lot of strain on it in the process.
When you speak to a stonewaller, they do not give any cues that they have heard what you said. They are completely impassive, like a stone wall (hence the name). Stonewalling usually arrives as a result of the first three horsemen, when one party feels there is no way to resolve difficulties and simply searches for an out in stressful situations. It’s relatively uncommon among newlyweds (though it can happen) because more frequently, the spiral of negativity which gives birth to stonewalling takes more time to create (Gottman, 2015).
Stonewalling is a more common behavior among men, but that doesn’t mean women don’t also do it. If you find that yourself or your partner begins to resort to stonewalling, it’s definitely time to see a relationship counselor in order to find more constructive ways to address your differences.
It’s rarely recommended in the field of interpersonal communication to use words like ‘always’ and ‘never’, which reduce things to black and white and can be alienating. So, please know that the next sentence is not typed lightly: N e v e r bring any of the four horsemen into discussions of your prenup. Never! Watch especially for signs of criticism, as it is often the first horseman. If you feel yourself becoming critical, contemptuous, defensive, or like you’re tempted to stonewall, it’s time to stop the discussion right there and take time to cool down. This discussion is too important to allow these horsemen entry. Keep these habits out of your prenup, and out of your marriage. These horsemen are not your friends.
Couples who take care to complain rather than criticize, respect their partners and view them as equals even when arguing, listen without defensiveness, and respond even when a part of them wants to tune out, will find that these habits build a fortification around their relationship which will keep those horsemen at bay. Instead, more welcome guests like trust, love, understanding, and closeness will enter freely.
Gottman, John. 2015. The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work: A practical guide from the international bestselling relationship expert.