Wish you knew exactly what makes a marriage work? While I can't dust off my magic wand and create the perfect marriage, research has gotten pretty darn close to figuring out what doesn't make a marriage work. Dr. John + Julie Gottman, a very smart and very in-love couple, have had extreme success in predicting whether or not marriage will end in divorce or live happily ever after using four ways of communication: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
While this isn't the title of a horror flick, the Four Horsemen can still lead an all out mass killing spree on your relationship. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse acts as a metaphor for the demise of your relationship. I know it's sort of morbid, but it hits on the severity of the situation and what is at stake. The Four Horsemen refer to four ways of talking to your spouse that, when consistently present, can lead to a slow death to your marriage. The Four Horsemen include: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
Killer #1: Criticism
Hey no one likes to consistently be told that who they are is just plain wrong. Criticism entails consistently nitpicking not only your partner's behaviors, but who they are as a person. It's one thing to voice your concern that your husband never washes the dishes, but it's another to criticize him for being a lazy sack of potatoes. What's the difference between voicing a concern and criticism? Criticism does not focus on a specific event, but globalizes your partner's behavior as making them the devil in ALL areas of their life, not just that they suck at dishes.
Killer #2: Contempt
Eek. Contempt lurks and lurks until it finally comes out in couples who have tried to stuff down their emotions. Contempt is defined as a direct interaction with your partner that is focused on nothing other than demeaning and hurting your partners feelings. This is the big bully of the Four Horsemen. Contempt can take many forms such as name-calling, mockery, eye rolling etc. Contempt can really damage the esteem of your partner with constant attacks.
Killer #3: Defensiveness
Ever felt like your partner just snapped on you when you asked them a question? Defensiveness commonly rears its ugly head when couples are experiencing trust issues. Perhaps we did something wrong, perhaps we didn't, whatever the case, someone who is acting defensive often makes it seem like everything their partner says is a direct attack. Man the battle ground. Defensiveness often likes to give a good jab itself as well, as turning the tables to accuse their partner of similar things they perceived themselves being accused of.
Killer #4: Stonewalling
My personal dread. Those who have ever experienced stonewalling, and trust me we all have, have experienced that lonely feeling of talking to a wall. Stonewalling creates an emotional and physical barrier between partners when one person disengages from the conversation which can come in many forms. Conflict may feel too overwhelming and stonewalling looks for any opportunity to avoid discussing the situation, whether watching cat videos while speaking to your spouse or leaving the room during a disagreement. Stonewalling often becomes a comfortable way to communicate that it becomes second-nature.
Okay my relationship is DOOMED, now what?
So now that you've read all Four Horsemen, identified yourself or your partner as engaging in each and every category, please step away from the ledge. Yes, we ALL engage in these behaviors at probably one time or another in our relationships. We are humans, we screw up sometimes. It's almost to be expected. While engaging in one of these behaviors isn't a trip to divorce court, it is important to gain awareness of our own behaviors to minimize the negative effect on our relationships. After continued exposure to these Four Horsemen, couples become disengaged, beat-down, and resentful. I want to challenge you to just look at your own behaviors a little closer and just see if you can catch yourself the next time you NEED to watch the game while your partner is telling you about their crappy day at work.
This is part one in a five part series of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The next blogs will focus more in depth about each of the Four Horsemen and provide concrete ways in which to an end to these relationship killers.
Brittany Malak, LMFT