Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the (Marital) Apocalypse

couples 1If two people stay together long enough, they are bound to have some conflicts, some issues or topics that cause discord, some negative patterns.

Maybe he doesn’t pick up after himself.

Or maybe she doesn’t make as much time for him in her busy schedule as he would like.

Maybe they have different ideas for how to discipline their kids. Or handle their finances. Or how often they’d like to have sex.

While many of these issues may be resolvable, some may not be. And — news flash — that’s actually ok! The fact that not all conflicts get resolved doesn’t necessarily mean doom and gloom for a relationship. The question is not whether all the issues are ultimately completely resolved but rather how well a couple learns to manage them — and to nurture their relationship in spite of the residual issues that crop up from time to time.

There are some types of negative patterns, however, that seem to spell a greater likelihood of doom for couples than others.

Relationship expert John Gottman (author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and co-founder of the Gottman Institute along with his wife, Julie Schwartz Gottman) has noted that four patterns in particular seem to be especially damaging. In fact, in his studies looking at factors that predict divorce, Gottman has found that these patterns can predict with over 90% accuracy which couples will be divorced within the next 5 years1. Scary, right?

This is why Gottman has dubbed these negative patterns “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

(No need to fear: even if you recognize yourself in some of these descriptions, it’s not too late to turn things around and develop new patterns. Plus, I’m going to give you some pointers for what to do if these patterns feel all too familiar, so hang in there!)

1. Criticism

couple argueCriticism is not the same thing as complaining or stating dissatisfaction with something. It’s basically framing your complaint as though it’s a defect in your partner.

Criticism implies that there’s something inherently wrong with them — with their character.

Saying, “I’m upset with you,” or, “That hurt my feelings,” is not the same as saying, “You’re a jerk.”

“I’m frustrated,” or “I’m angry,” is not the same as, “What the #&%* is wrong with you?!”

Complaining focuses on a specific behavior you want to change. Criticism is a personal attack.

Statements beginning with “You always” or “You never” fall into the criticism camp too, so be careful with those. They’re bound to make your partner feel attacked — putting them on the defensive. Then neither of you ends up feeling heard, and it’s hard to have a productive conversation where anything will be resolved.

What’s wrong with criticism?

The problem with criticism is that it implies that the real problem is the other person — rather than their behavior.

When you complain instead of criticize (focusing on a specific behavior), there’s an opportunity for the two of you to look at it together and try to come up with a solution. You can still be on the same team.

When you criticize, however, the other person just feels attacked. He or she is basically given two options: (1) accept the criticism and feel bad about themselves, or (2) go on the defensive and fight back. Neither ends up really resolving the issue or making you feel closer.

Criticism may make you feel like you’re standing up for yourself, but it’s unlikely to get you what you really want — behavior change.

What to do instead:

You may be feeling very critical of your partner. You may believe that you have legitimate complaints — you probably do! But there are ways of talking about these that are not a personal attack on your partner.

Instead of labeling or making sweeping or global statements about their “always”/”never” behavior, try to stick to a direct statement of what upsets you right now: For example: “I’m upset that you didn’t call me today when you said you would.”

Don’t assume to know your partner’s intentions. Rather than, “You just don’t care about me,” or, “You’re so inconsiderate!” try to focus on your own feelings: “When you don’t call, I end up feeling like I’m not very important to you.” (You might even acknowledge, “That may not be your intention, but it’s still how I end up feeling.”)

Follow it up by letting them know specifically what you would like to see change: “It would really mean a lot to me if you’d make an effort to call me next time when you’ve said you would.” Simple as that.

2. Defensiveness

defensiveThe second horseman is defensiveness, which, of course, is related to criticism. When we feel under attack, we naturally become defensive. We feel victimized, and we try to protect ourselves.

Defensiveness often takes the form of arguing with what the other person has said, perhaps denying whatever criticism has been made or trying to justify one’s behavior.

It might involve making excuses, such as blaming our behavior on external circumstances (“It’s not my fault! I was so busy that I didn’t have time to call.”) — or even on our partner (“Well, I might want to call you if you weren’t always attacking me! According to you, I can’t do anything right!”).

couple fightDefensiveness might also involve mounting a counter-attack (“You think I’m insensitive?! What about you?!“) Or ignoring your partner’s complaint to bring up one of your own (“Oh, you think that’s bad? What about how you always…”).

Be careful of responses beginning with, “Yes, but…” So many of us respond to complaints in this way, thinking that we’re acknowledging the other person’s perspective with the “yes.” However, with that other little word “but,” we then flip the tables and defend ourselves. That’s still defensiveness, and it still makes are partner feel discounted.

What’s wrong with defensiveness?

Responding with defensiveness gives the message that you won’t be impacted by what your partner has to say — that they can’t have an effect on you.

Your partner doesn’t feel heard or like their feelings matter. This is likely to make them feel either angry or helpless (or both), which isn’t good for either of you.

What to do instead:

Of course, you may feel defensive inside. You may feel like you’re being wrongly accused of something. You may feel like your partner doesn’t appreciate all the circumstances.

That’s fine. You don’t have to take responsibility for everything. But strong couples find ways to take at least partial responsibility, to let their partners’ know that they hear them and that they care.

You might say, “Honey, I’m so sorry. I know I said I’d call, and I just forgot. It’s no excuse, but I was just so busy and overwhelmed with things at work that it slipped my mind. I hope you understand.”

Or in a situation where you feel like you’re being wrongly accused of something, you might take a different approach by acknowledging your defensiveness and asking your partner more about their feelings. (Feeling defensive and acting defensive aren’t the same thing.)

For example, if your partner accuses you of making an insensitive comment, you could say, “You know, I’m feeling a little defensive, because that wasn’t my intention at all. It seems like maybe we’re having a misunderstanding, but I want to understand how it made you feel. Can you help me see things from your perspective?”

This way, you’re letting your partner know that you care about their feelings and experience, even if you don’t take all the responsibility.

Still finding yourself feeling tempted to say, “Yes, but…”? Try “Yes, and…” instead. Better yet, put a firm period after the “Yes,” before moving on. Pause. Breathe. Make sure your partner knows you’ve heard them before you move on to your next point.

3. Contempt

contemptWhen couples treat each other with contempt, they relate to each other from a position of superiority, putting each other down in an attempt to feel more powerful.

Contempt is often an attempt (albeit a misguided one) to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable. When people have tried repeatedly and in vain to get their partners to meet their needs, they may feel helpless. That feeling of powerless can lead some people to try to turn the tables on their partner by putting them down.

Some common signs of contempt include sarcasm, disdain, eye-rolling, name-calling, sneering, or mocking, or mean-spirited humor. These are all ways of putting the other person down, attempting to make them feel small and insignificant. Contempt is often non-verbal (body language or tone of voice).

What’s wrong with contempt?

Treating your partner with contempt will make them feel as though you don’t respect them or see them as worthy of love. While it may temporarily make you feel more powerful and in control, it only serves to drive you further apart.

Furthermore, making your partner feel as though you don’t respect them can do irreparable damage to your relationship. In Gottman’s research, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce.

What to do instead:

The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of mutual respect and appreciation in your relationship. Even when you are feeling frustrated or angry with one another, you can communicate this in a way that demonstrates that you still respect each other.

If you notice that contempt is a problem in your relationship, talk about it. Acknowledge the problem. Take responsibility for your own role in it, and agree to work together to shift the tone. Make an effort to actively look for things to appreciate about your partner, even if you continue to have some complaints.

4. Stonewalling

couple stonewallStonewalling is shutting your partner out, withdrawing from the interaction (whether physically or emotionally).

This usually happens when one person is feeling overwhelmed by the interaction and shuts down as a way of protecting themselves when they see no other way to respond.

The person who is stonewalling might leave the room — or they might just tune out, turn away, or engage in some other activity that makes them unavailable (turning on the TV, putting on headphones, starting to read something while the other person is talking to them).

Couples who stonewall may not look like they’re fighting a lot, because they’re not speaking to each other. On the other hand, one person might be yelling and screaming, trying the get the other’s attention, while the other person seems completely unresponsive.

What’s wrong with stonewalling?

While the person who is stonewalling is usually completely overwhelmed inside, their behavior communicates that the partner can’t have any impact one them. The partner is completely shut out.

And while shutting down emotionally may give that person some temporary relief from feeling so flooded, it’s unlikely to solve any problems. In fact, it’s likely to infuriate your partner and cause them to ramp things up in an attempt to get through the wall. Do that long enough and they might completely shut down too, but that doesn’t lead anywhere good either.

What to do instead:

We tend to stonewall when we’re feeling overwhelmed or flooded by our emotions. If you’re too overwhelmed to interact in that moment, it can be helpful to let your partner know what’s going on and take a break.

You can say, “You know, I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now, and I can’t think clearly. I know this is important, but I need some time to myself to calm down. Let’s talk more in a little bit.”

Then take at least 20 minutes before coming back to the conversation — that’s how long it usually takes for our bodies to calm down physiologically. During the break (and this is very important!) resist the urge to plan your defense or fan the flames of righteous indignation toward your partner. Instead do something soothing, like going for a walk, listening to calming music, exercising, or taking a warm shower.

With enough practice, you might be able to begin to recognize when you’re beginning to feel overwhelmed before you reach your breaking point. If you do, you can practice some self-soothing in the moment that might allow you stay in the conversation without taking a break: take some deep breaths, focus on the sensations of your feet on the floor, remind yourself of the love you and your partner share and how you’ve made it through other conflicts in the past.

Uh oh… What if these patterns sound all too familiar?

Remember, many couples engage in some of these behaviors from time to time, so no need to panic if you recognize yourselves in an example or two.

However, if these behaviors sound all too familiar, it’s worth trying to break the pattern to get yourselves on a better track. There are a number of books that couples can read together try to improve their communication. For some examples, you can check out my list of recommended books on couples issues (including Gottman’s Seven Principles).

Many couples can also benefit from couples counseling. When emotions run high, it can be very helpful to have a neutral third party there to listen and point out where you’re not hearing one another, where you’re falling into destructive patterns, or where things may be getting lost in translation.

couple loveRecognizing problematic patterns early and developing healthier ways of handling conflict can prevent a lot of heartache further down the road.

That being said, even if your relationship with your partner seems entrenched in problematic patterns like these, it’s never too late to work on your relationship. If both partners are motivated and if they can be open and willing to meet each other halfway, even long-standing dynamics can shift, making room for new, healthier patterns.

If you think that you could benefit from couples counseling, check out this page of my website to learn more about how it might be able to help in your relationship and feel free to get in touch with any questions you might have.


p.s. As always, I would love to hear from you — your thoughts, reactions, or questions about this post. However, if you choose to share your thoughts below, please keep in mind that these comments are visible to anyone who visits the blog. Therefore, I would encourage you to use a pseudonym (not use your real name) to protect your own privacy. If you would like to get in touch but would prefer to contact me privately, you can do so here.

Show 1 footnote

  1. For a list of citations for all of these studies, see here.

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