Two of the foremost researchers on couples therapy are John and Julie Gottman. John Gottman, Ph.D. has spent over 30 years working with over 3000 couples and has data on aspects of relationships that most of us have never even thought about. They are so aware of what makes relationships work (and not work) they can predict with over 90% accuracy if a relationship will last after listening to just one conversation between a couple. They have also allowed me to help others communicate within their marriages in a way that has brought people closer when they felt they were drifting apart.
The most important element in their prediction is the presence of what the Gottman’s call, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a reference to the book of Revelation’s description of the Last Days. They believe unless we learn how to tame these horsemen, they will foretell the end of most any relationship.
Here they are:
Horseman 1 – Criticism: Likely you have a good idea of what criticism is. Describing a flaw in your partner’s personality or character is criticism. “You are selfish,” or “you are always so cold.” When a sentence starts with “you always” or “you never” it likely involves criticism. If you find you and your partner hang out here, don’t worry you are not alone. The good news is there is an antidote. The problem is the longer you hang out here the more likely you are to encounter the far more fatal horsemen that follow.
Horseman 2 – Contempt: According to Gottman this is the deadliest of the Four Horsemen, the one that best predicts divorce or the end of a relationship. Contempt is when you feel superior to your partner and take the moral high-ground. It is often indicated by sarcasm, cynicism, eye-rolling, and mockery. Not only is contempt extremely harmful to your relationship, but contemptuous couples are also more likely to contract infectious illnesses (colds, flu, etc.) than other people.
Horseman 3 – Defensiveness: Is a very understandable response and an attempt to protect oneself. Defensiveness doesn’t help resolve an issue, and more likely escalates it. Sometimes it takes the form of an “innocent victim.” Sometimes it looks like a counter-attack. It never takes responsibility.
Horseman 4 – Stonewalling: This is when a partner (statistically more likely a male) checks out. The partner remains in the room but gives no indication of being a part of the discussion or argument. Stonewalling is usually the last of the Four Horsemen to arrive. The other horsemen need to be running around in a relationship for a while before the feelings of being overwhelmed are such that stonewalling seems like the only legitimate way out.
John Gottman says the horsemen don’t arrive in any particular order. In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he points out, “criticism, contempt and defensiveness don’t always gallop into a home in strict order. They function more like a relay match – handing the baton off to each other over and over again if the couple can’t put a stop to it.”
If you recognize the presence of the Four Horsemen in your relationship, you certainly are not alone. The good news is that the sooner you spot it and learn how to tame the horses, the more fulfilling your relationship will be. The unfortunate news is, the longer they go untamed the more destruction they can wreak in your relationship.
Having completed level 2 training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy I am able to help you and your partner create a relationship that you find meaningful, rewarding, and to help bring back the feelings that had you come together in the first place. I would be happy to talk with you about this. You can contact me by text/phone (314-722-8255) or by the contact me section of this website.
Stay tuned for the next blog about the antidotes to each of the Four Horsemen. Until then see if you can be aware of when they show up in your relationship. That would be a great start!