John Gottman, PhD, the leading expert on relationship stability, has been able to determine 4 negative communication habits couples use that destroy their relationship. Here we take a closer look at what he has labeled as “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.”
First of all, when I inform couples of the link between divorce and the continued use of the horseman, they are both shocked and worried. Worried because they are guilty of using them and fearful their relationship is doomed. I assure them we are all guilty of using them at times and when we know better, we can do better. Therefore, I frequently give examples from my own life to diminish their shame.
Criticism – Attacking your partner’s personality or character, usually with the intent of making someone right and someone wrong. Over 80% of the time, women are guilty of using this horseman. This is predominantly because women are trained from a very young age to be observant of relationship dynamics. When they see or feel something that is not consistent with how things “should be”, they are more likely to say it. And when they say it, it often is stated much too harshly and does not produce the desired result.
Defensiveness –Seeing yourself as the victim or trying to ward off a perceived attack. We all do things that our partners don’t like. What causes more trouble in the relationship though is when we act defensively and avoid taking responsibility for our actions.
Being defensive is avoiding responsibility for your behavior by pointing out something your partner did or why they are in fact THEY problem instead of you.
“I hate it when you go shopping with your sister at the mall. You end up spending money we don’t have.”
“Oh yeah, what about all the money you spend on your hunting trips with your brother? You don’t hear me complaining about that do you?”
Another way to be defensive is to play the victim. “I guess everything is my fault or I guess I can’t do anything to please you.”
Contempt –Attacking your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse him/her. This is the horseman I am the most concerned about in any relationship. When contempt shows up in the relationship consistently it’s at a very high risk to fail. Contempt is the greatest predictor of relationship failure. Contempt communicates disgust and disrespect. It shows up in non-verbal behaviors such as face mocking, sneering, eye-rolling and in the very behaviors of put-downs, name-calling and belligerence. It really looks like bullying and it is emotional abuse. When I see it happen in session with my couples, I call them on it and tell them if they keep tearing each other down in this way, their relationship will not survive and the chance of them being physical sick more often skyrockets (people in contemptuous relationships have weakened immune systems as a direct result of the emotional hurt).
Stone-walling – this is a behavior that is exemplified by it’s name – withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. Men are 80% more likely than women to be guilty of this behavior. This is usually a result of feeling overwhelmed by the conversation and not knowing how to communicate this.
There are antidotes to each of the four horseman – ways to speak and act in a respectful way for the good of the relationship. Just because you use some of the four horseman currently does not mean your relationship is doomed, but it is time to take a look at how you are communicating and if it’s working (probably not).