Gottman's Four Horsemen
Updated: Mar 3, 2020
John Gottman PhD is one of the leading researchers in marital therapy over the last 30 years. He has done all types of research on what makes marriages successful or unsuccessful but one of the key components he has identified as to whether or not couple’s divorce or not relates to how they communicate during arguments. Dr. Gottman refers to the negative communication pattern that couples at risk of divorce often display as the 4 Horseman of the Apocalypse. See if you relate to this argument pattern. If so do everything you can to break the pattern today before the wounds are so deep and your spouse wants out. If you can’t break this cycle on your own (as many couples can’t) give me a call and I will be glad to help you.
So here is the pattern or signs to look for in your marriage. THE FIRST SIGN: HARSH STARTUP The most obvious indicator that a discussion (and the marriage) is not going to go well is the way it begins. When a discussion leads off with criticism and/or sarcasm, a form of contempt — it has begun with a “harsh startup.” The research shows that if your discussion begins with a harsh startup, it will inevitably end on a negative note, even if there are a lot of attempts to “make nice” in between. Statistics tell the story: 96 percent of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the fifteen-minute interaction! A harsh startup simply dooms you to failure. So if you begin a discussion that way, you might as well pull the plug, take a breather, and start over.
THE SECOND SIGN: THE FOUR HORSEMEN A harsh startup sounds the warning bell that the couple may be having serious difficulty. As the discussion unfolds, Gottman continues to look out for particular types of negative interactions. Certain kinds of negativity, if allowed to run rampant, are so lethal to a relationship that Gottman calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Usually these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Horseman 1: Criticism. You will always have some complaints about the person you live with. But there’s a world of difference between a complaint and a criticism.
A complaint only addresses the specific action at which your spouse failed. A criticism is more global — it adds on some negative words about your mate’s character or personality. “I’m really angry that you didn’t sweep the kitchen floor last night. We agreed that we’d take turns doing it” is a complaint — it focuses on a specific behavior. “Why are you so forgetful? I hate having to always sweep the kitchen floor when it’s your turn. You just don’t care” is a criticism. Criticism throws in blame and general character assassination. To turn a complaint into a criticism, add the line: “What is wrong with you?” Usually a harsh startup comes in the guise of criticism. Complaint. There’s no gas in the car. Why didn’t you fill it up like you said you would? Criticism. Why can’t you ever remember anything? I told you a thousand times to fill up the tank, and you didn’t. (Criticism. She’s implying the problem is his fault. Even if it is, blaming him will only make it worse.)
The first horseman is very common in relationships. If you find that you and your spouse are critical of each other, don’t assume you’re headed for divorce court. The problem with criticism is that when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen.
Horseman 2: Contempt. Sarcasm and cynicism are types of contempt. So are name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. In whatever form, contempt — the worst of the four horsemen — is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict rather than to reconciliation.
Often a person’s main purpose is to demean her or his spouse. Couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses (colds, flu, and so on) than other people. Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner. You’re more likely to have such thoughts if your differences are not resolved. As disagreeing persists, complaints turn into global criticisms, which produces more and more disgusted feelings and thoughts, and finally you are fed up with your spouse, a change that will affect what you say when you argue. Belligerence is just as deadly to a relationship. It is a form of aggressive anger because it contains a threat or provocation.
Horseman 3: Defensiveness. When conversations become so negative, critical, and attacking, it should come as no surprise that you will defend yourself. Although this is understandable, research shows that this approach rarely has the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner.You’re saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so deadly.
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. The more defensive one becomes, the more the other attacks in response. Nothing gets resolved, thanks to the prevalence of criticism, contempt, and defensiveness. Much of these exchanges are communicated subtly (and not so subtly) through body language and sounds.
Horseman 4: Stonewalling. In marriages where discussions begin with a harsh startup, where criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, which leads to more contempt and more defensiveness, eventually one partner tunes out. So enters the fourth horseman. Think of the husband who comes home from work, gets met with a barrage of criticism from his wife, and hides behind the newspaper. The less responsive he is, the more she yells. Eventually he gets up and leaves the room. Rather than confronting his wife, he disengages. By turning away from her, he is avoiding a fight, but he is also avoiding his marriage. He has become a stonewaller. Although both husbands and wives can be stonewallers, this behavior is far more common among men. During a typical conversation between two people, the listener gives all kinds of cues to the speaker that he’s paying attention. He may use eye contact, nod his head, say something like “Yeah” or “Uh-huh.” A stonewaller doesn’t give you this sort of casual feedback. He tends to look away or down without uttering a sound. He sits like an impassive stone wall. The stonewaller acts as though he couldn’t care less about what you’re saying, if he even hears it. Stonewalling usually arrives later in the course of a marriage than the other three horsemen. That’s why it’s less common among newlywed husbands than among couples who have been in a negative spiral for a while. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out.”
THE THIRD SIGN: FLOODING Usually people stonewall as a protection against feeling flooded. Flooding means that your spouse’s negativity — whether in the guise of criticism or contempt or even defensiveness — is so overwhelming, and so sudden, that it leaves you shell-shocked. You feel so defenseless against this sniper attack that you learn to do anything to avoid a replay. The more often you feel flooded by your spouse’s criticism or contempt, the more hypervigilant you are for cues that your spouse is about to “blow” again. All you can think about is protecting yourself from the turbulence your spouse’s onslaught causes. And the way to do that is to disengage emotionally from the relationship. A marriage’s meltdown can be predicted by habitual harsh startup and frequent flooding brought on by the relentless presence of the four horsemen during disagreements. Although each of these factors alone can predict a divorce, they usually coexist in an unhappy marriage.
THE FOURTH SIGN: BODY LANGUAGE Even if you could not hear the conversation between a stonewaller and the spouse, you would be able to predict their divorce simply by looking at the stonewaller’s physiological readings. When couples are monitored for bodily changes during a tense discussion, you can see just how physically distressing flooding is. One of the most apparent of these physical reactions is that the heart speeds up — pounding away at more than 100 beats per minute — even as high as 165. (In contrast, a typical heart rate for a man who is about 30 is 76, and for a woman the same age, 82.) Hormonal changes occur, too, including the secretion of adrenaline, which kicks in the “fight or flight response.” Blood pressure mounts. These changes are so dramatic that if one partner is frequently flooded during marital discussions, it’s easy to predict that they will divorce.
Recurring episodes of flooding lead to divorce for two reasons. First, they signal that at least one partner feels severe emotional distress when dealing with the other. Second, the physical sensations of feeling flooded — increased heart rate, sweating, etc. — make it almost impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion. When your body goes into overdrive during an argument, it perceives the current situation as dangerous. When a pounding heart and all the other physical stress reactions happen in the midst of a discussion with your mate, the consequences are disastrous. Your ability to process information is reduced, meaning it’s harder to pay attention to what your partner is saying. Creative problem solving goes out the window. You’re left with the most reflexive, least intellectually sophisticated responses in your repertoire: to fight (act critical, contemptuous, or defensive) or flee (stonewall). Any chance of resolving the issue is gone. Most likely, the discussion will just worsen the situation.
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