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Blog Short #25: Relationship killers you can change before it’s too late!

John Gottman is a well-known psychologist and researcher in the area of marital stability and therapy. You may know of him already. He’s the author of a bestseller entitled The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work.

His insights are based on research he’s conducted, most notably a study in which he watched couples through a one-way mirror discussing an unresolved issue for a period of 15 minutes.

In the course of this study, he identified four communication patterns that signal marital distress, and ultimately can lead to its demise. He calls them The Four Horseman, named after the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.

They are: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling.

I’ll go through each of them briefly, and then give you some strategies you can use to avoid them. Here they are.

Horseman #1: Criticism

The best way to understand criticism is to distinguish it from a complaint. A complaint addresses a behavior or act and is a normal type of communication.

“I didn’t get a call from you today per usual to let me know you were going to be late. I was worried!”

Criticism is more global and assaults someone’s character or personality.

“As usual, you didn’t call me to let me know you were going to be late. You’re not someone I can count on!”

The first statement focuses on the behavior. The second adds blame to the equation and launches a character assassination.

“You’re not someone I can count on!”

Horseman #2: Contempt

Contempt includes sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, hostile humor, cynicism, and scorn. The hallmark of this mode of communication is the message of “disgust.”

Once you lead with contemptuous gestures or communications, any chance of resolving an issue is lost.

“Once again you didn’t call me to let me know you were going to be late! How many times do I have to tell you this? What’s wrong with you? Can’t you remember anything?“

This statement not only criticizes, but it’s a full-on attack delivered with sarcasm and belittling.

Contempt usually occurs when there are unresolved issues that have been simmering for a long time, and attempts to resolve them have been unsuccessful. It’s an escalation of criticism, and Dr. Gottman sees it as the most dangerous of The Four Horseman.

He also notes that belligerence is a “close cousin” to contempt and is equally deadly to a relationship. It’s more aggressive and feels threatening.

Horseman #3: Defensiveness

Defensiveness is an attempt to escape the complaint (or criticism). It’s also an attempt to shift the blame away and back toward the partner.

Although it’s natural to try and defend against a personal attack, becoming defensive just escalates the conflict. It’s like adding fuel to the fire.

“So I forgot one time! Sue me! If you didn’t nag so much, I might remember. I might even want to come home!”

This defense is particularly deadly because it contains a counterattack, and uses contempt in the process.

Horseman #4: Stonewalling

Stonewalling is sort of the last straw and occurs later in a relationship when one or both partners feel unheard, and have concluded that it’s futile to try and talk things out.

During a conversation or dressing down, it can take the form of hiding behind a computer screen, leaving the room while the partner’s talking, turning on the TV and drowning her out, or becoming unresponsive. Regardless of the method, it’s an act of disengagement.

It’s not always done on purpose. One might become emotionally flooded and overwhelmed by the intensity of the other’s attack, leaving him defenseless, and so he withdraws or becomes paralyzed and checks out.

What to do.

For a full discussion of what you can do to help repair a marriage and strengthen it, I would encourage you to read Dr. Gottman’s book. For now, here’s some basic things you can do when communicating with your partner to reduce the occurrence of The Four Horsemen.

#1 Focus on behaviors only, not personal characteristics. Avoid these:

  • Labeling – “You’re lazy.
  • Analyzing – “You’ve got a real issue with money!”
  • Insulting – “You’re just an idiot!”
  • Diagnosing – “I think you’re bipolar.”

#2 Use “I” statements rather than “You” statements.

“When you do . . ., I feel . . .”

#3 Take responsibility for your feelings.

“I worry when you come home late without letting me know about it ahead.”

instead of

“You make me worry when you come home late.”

#4 Rather than defending, ask questions.

The goal is to understand what the other person is really saying and feeling. When you take that approach, you diffuse negative emotions and connect. Set aside your defense for the moment, and try to fully understand what’s bothering your partner.

#5 Pick the right time for hard conversations.

  • Are either of you sick or under the weather?
  • What’s the level of tiredness or stress?
  • Are there any mood problems at the moment?

#6 Make your statements clear and specific.

Don’t make your partner guess at what you’re really saying or how you’re feeling. And especially don’t expect him to read your mind. This is an expectation that many couples have of each other and it’s an easy way to create misunderstandings. Be clear, direct, and say what you mean.

#7 If you feel flooded and can’t continue, take a break.

Let your partner know what’s going on and step back for a while. Do something soothing until you feel collected and calm enough to reengage in the conversation. This is not the same as stonewalling.

Last thoughts.

It’s noteworthy to keep in mind that using The Four Horseman in your communications is not only detrimental to your marriage, but to any intimate relationship including that between parent and child, with other family members, or with close friends. Best practice is to try and remove them altogether from your repertoire.

Especially watch out for sarcasm which can be used playfully sometimes, but it’s walking a tightrope that often leaves a sting.

That’s all for today. I hope you have a wonderful week!

All my best,


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