The Four Horsemen

You are probably familiar with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (pestilence, war, famine & death) who herald the coming of the end.  What you didn’t know is there are Four Horsemen who trot into marriage and herald the coming of divorce court.

The country’s foremost family researcher, John M. Gottman, Ph.D. has found, from six relationship signs, that he can predict with 91% accuracy the future success or failure of a marriage—often after observing the couple for only five minutes.  Having studied some 650 couples and tracking the fate of their marriages for up to fourteen years, his findings are worth understanding if you care about your marriage.  His complete analysis and suggestions for getting your marriage back on track can be found in his book,  The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work published 1999 by Three Rivers Press.

Here I will discuss one of these signs, which Gottman refers to collectively as the Four Horsemen. 

Horseman 1: Criticism
We all have complaints about the person we live with.  A complaint, however, is directed at a specific action or inaction taken by your spouse.  Criticism, on the other hand, expands the complaint into an indictment against your mate’s character or personality.  “You didn’t take out the trash like you promised.  I’m frustrated and disappointed” is a complaint.  “You didn’t take out the trash like you promised.  You’re a liar and inconsiderate” is criticism.  If your marriage has its share of criticism, you are not alone.  Nor is your marriage doomed according to Gottman.  However, allowing it to flourish opens the gate for the next Horseman.

Horseman 2: Contempt
Contempt is the worst of the Four Horseman.  It takes many forms, but most importantly it conveys a sense of disgust.  Problem solving when you are disgusted with or feel the other is disgusted with you is almost impossible.  Sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery and hostile humor are all forms of contempt which cut off the opportunity to reconcile and, thereby, increase the conflict.

Horseman 3:  Defensiveness
Most of us want to get away from a painful situation as quickly as possible.  And defending yourself from a spouse’s complaint or criticism seems the natural and normal response.  However, Gottman’s research and my experience working with couples show that defensiveness rarely has the desired effect.  A complaint or criticism is a way of saying, “I need something (attention, respect, time, appreciation, care, etc.) from you.”  Responding defensively, by arguing who is right or making excuses, is a way of saying, “You’re not going to get what you want from me.”  This inevitably keeps the conflict going.  Of course there are times when the complaint is invalid or there is a reasonable excuse that kept your spouse from delivering.  A strong relationship can navigate this path with little distress.  However, if the other Horsemen are always nearby, defensiveness invites them in.

Horseman 4:  Stonewalling
When criticism, contempt and defensiveness become regular visitors to the relationship, eventually one spouse will simply tune out.  The typical example, as Gottman points out, is the husband who comes home from work, gets met with a barrage of criticism from his wife and retreats behind a newspaper, TV or computer.  The less responsive he is, the more she yells.  Eventually he leaves the room.  He has become a stonewaller and the fourth Horseman has arrived. 

If your relationship has become a corral for one or more of the Four Horsemen, it is time to turn things around.  Please call me.  I would be honored to help.

Joe Pollon is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in couples counseling.