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A research team under John Gottman, a well-known expert in couples research, found that, “the success or failure of a marriage depends not on whether there is conflict, but on how conflict is handled when it does occur (Walsh, 2012).” Because of that, Gottman has addressed the mistakes we make while in the middle of marital conflict, in hopes that we can correct our mistakes and live happier marriages. This theory of his is called, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

Some of you may be familiar with him, or with this particular theory. I think it’s so spot on. Gottman is also just filled with yeeeeeeears of extensive knowledge from his research in observing couples, so I trust him.

If you are like me, you like to learn helpful life tips through bullet points and summaries. Since these ways tend to help me remember information the best, I have simplified the ideas behind each horseman in bullet points and have given my thoughts for each, as well. I hope you find this helpful to implement in your own life!

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Summary of the Four Horsemen

1. Criticism

This is a type of communication that goes beyond a simple complaint. It is smart to avoid because it attacks the spouse’s character, which can be more hurtful.

Associated words and phrases: 

  • Generalizations: always; never; usually
  • “Why are you so…?” “Why do you always….?”

The things I noticed about criticism:

  • We create facts using criticism this way. I say “create” because most of the time they aren’t true. I could criticize Trevor saying that he “never” does the dishes but that isn’t true because we both know he does the dishes.
  • You will ALWAYS be caught when you use a generalization. When you think about it, that’s the first “comeback” people use, is to contradict you from saying something you just deemed as a fact, when it most likely wasn’t true.
  • A suggestion is to focus on the now, and the facts. Scenario: Husband didn’t do the dishes. I am bothered. So the alternative phrase to use when focusing on those two facts, would be: “It bothered me that you didn’t do the dishes last night.”
  • Can you see how this start to a difficult conversation might be a better way towards a resolution instead of, “Why do you never do the dishes when I ask you to?!”

2. Contempt

This is considered “the most corrosive” of the four because it includes disrespect, and can have undertones of superiority. The reason to avoid it is because it can escalate the problem further.

Associated words and phrases:

  • Phrases that are said in sarcasm, insults, eye rolls, or mockery.
  • “Seriously? Did you really just do that?”
  • Or said sarcastically, “What a great parent YOU are.”

Things I noticed about Contempt:

  • Contempt seems to include the intention to insult, so this could be an indicator that what you are thinking about retorting with in your conversation might be contemptuous.
  • If I know that the comeback I am considering replying with could be really hurtful, then it’s probably not a good idea for me to use it.
  • Since contempt can hinder reconciling, your spouse might be more likely to reply with a contemptuous comment as well, pushing further away the chance for overcoming the conflict. Can you dish it and take it?
  • I’ve noticed that the problem shifts from a complaint about not doing the dishes, to how your spouse just disrespected, and hurt you. Again, this is making the problem worse.

3. Defensiveness

This is when we try to protect ourselves against what appears to be an attack. The reason to avoid it is because the opportunity will arise to turn the blame around on the other spouse and this can be ineffective in getting out of distress.

Associated communications:

  • We tend to ignore the initial complaint by bringing up a complaint of our own. This is a counterattack. (Well, you didn’t do the dishes either.”)
  • Counterattacks will most likely happen from the other spouse, and they also escalate the problem.
  • “Yeah, but…” is a typical way of defending ourselves.

Things I noticed:

  • Since victims will typically defend themselves, this can be a good indicator that you will start getting defensive against a complaint brought up.
  • Though I tend to get defensive more often than not, I struggle with this one. However, I have found that when I acknowledge or validate Trevor’s feelings and that he could be right, he is more kind, more forgiving, and the conversation overall can have a better ending.
  • Again, it is good to stick to the here and now, and the facts: I didn’t do the dishes last night. My husband is feeling upset with me from it. A good phrase to reply with could be, “You’re right, I didn’t do the dishes last night, and I am sorry that I upset you by not doing it.”

4. Stonewalling

This is when an overwhelmed feeling is caused by the contempt, criticism, and defensiveness felt in the conflict, and it causes the spouse to disconnect from the conversation through ignorance, silence, avoidance, etc. The reason we would want to avoid this is because without active participation in the conversation, it can become an impasse in finding a resolution.

Associated words and phrases:

  • We tend to use further criticism and contempt when a person goes into a stonewalling frame of mind. For example: “You don’t have anything to say about it?! Seriously, you always do this. You just don’t care at all, do you?!”

Things I noticed:

  • Stonewalling can just push each other further away, and won’t resolve anything.
  • Some people like to take a walk to clear their head when in the middle of a conflict. This isn’t necessarily stonewalling if you communicate with your spouse that you need to take some time to think and will be back to talk about it in a certain amount of time. Communicating that seems to comfort the other spouse in a way that let’s them know you aren’t ignoring them or trying to stonewall.
  • In seeing the negative example above of furthering criticism to a stonewaller, you could try positively re-engaging the stonewaller back into dialogue.

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Avoid the Horsemen

I am finding I am not a pro in how I approach handling conflicts in my marriage. I’ll admit to you that my area of improvement will be starting with the “Yeah, but…” phrases, because I use those too often! I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of using one of these tactics at one point or another, so we are all learning. It can be hard in the heat of the argument to withhold a comeback, or it can be hard to stay in the conversation when you have been put down.  Just do your best to avoid using all four in a conflict, because Gottman found that when all four are habitually used in conflict it was a good prediction of divorce. I didn’t want to throw in that doom and gloom statement, but it’s serious stuff. That’s why he uses the “apocalypse” phrase in the theory title! All I can say is keep trying, because I’m trying too…..

Dear Trevor,

I will keep trying to avoid using excuse phrases that start with “Yeah, but…” hahahaha.

Love, Amy


To be enlightened even MORE by John Gottman’s relationship theories and advice, check out my favorite book of his, and my favorite all-time marriage book, “The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work.”

Source: Walsh, Froma. “Varying Forms and Challenges.” Normal Family Processes: Growing Diversity and Complexity. 4th ed. New York: Guilford, 2012. 58-59. Print.

 

Keepin' marriage fresh,
Amy

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