The Four Horseman of Marital Doom – Predictors of Divorce

12648772-angry-husband-and-wife-turning-their-back-on-each-otherI’m reprinting an article on a concept that is an incredibly accurate predictor of marriage/relationship doom.

The concept in short?   Relationships that aren’t given the right amount of positive energy are doomed to what the author, Dr. John Gottman, calls “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” in a relationship.  Eg, how we handle that conflict helps decide whether or not the relationship remains healthy or moves towards its end. The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Get them out of your relationship.  Dr. Gottman indicates that if your relationship has any of these 4 as a characteristic, your chances of divorce are “about 90%”.  I would think that if you were in a relationship, even a new one, you should evaluate your relationship to see if any of these characteristics are typical.

The Four Horsemen of Marital Apocalypse

Stop to consider your last fight with your spouse. The exact subject may escape you at the moment. We understand. After a while, the spats – over bills, your job, in-laws or the dishes still in the sink – can all blur together. But contrary to popular belief, it’s not the amount of conflict in your marriage or what you argue about that determines your relationship’s survival rate. to marriage researchers, how a couple fights tends to be the best predicator of whether they’ll end up enjoying their golden years together or battling it out in divorce court. So learning to fight less may not be quite as important as learning to fight fair.

Horseman #1: Criticism

The most common horseman that emerges in long-term relationships is criticism. Frustrations, annoyances and resentment inevitably build up when couples live together – day in and day out. And criticism can be how these emotions manifest in the heat of an argument.

Note that criticism differs from complaining. Criticism focuses on the person. Complaining focuses on the behavior. This may seem like subtle nuance but research shows it is a distinction that makes a significant difference in the long term. For example, this is a critical statement: “You always drive around in circles. You are an awful driver with a terrible sense of direction.” These words are dripping with blame and accusation. They are a personal attack.

Unlike criticism, complaining has more to do with how the other person’s behavior makes you feel. Complaining usually begins with an “I” instead of “you”: “I get so frustrated when you are driving and don’t know where you are going.” See the difference? The second statement is a negative comment about something you wish were otherwise. So though “I” statements can seem awkward, they really help keep the carnage manageable during explosive moments.

Gottman found that women were more likely to be the criticizer than men.

Horseman #2: Contempt

You’re an idiot. You can’t do anything right. You make me sick. These contemptuous words have no place in any relationship you value. They are meant to explicitly humiliate or wound. They are toxic and indefensible. Period.

Contempt includes but is not limited to name-calling, hostility and sarcasm. Keep in mind that contempt can also be conveyed non-verbally. An excessively harsh tone or disgusted eye roll can escalate your garden-variety argument into WWIII in the blink of an eye.

When contempt enters the relationship, the partner does not point out things in order to fix them. He or she acts in a contemptuous manner simply for the sake of hurting the other, degrading the other, and having an argument.  Invariably, it escalates the conflict within a marriage instead of solving any problems. Isn’t it interesting that two people, who started life together, with an attitude of wanting to be together, can reach this point? It happens extremely often.

Avoid contempt in your arguments at all cost. It is the basest, most childish tactic to resort to in a fight. Strive to respect your wife even when you disagree or feel upset with her. Contempt is like a poison. It will single-handedly erode intimacy. It destroys a sense of security and mutual respect. It does real damage because it makes a partner feel belittled and unloved.

Horseman #3: Defensiveness

Criticism+Contempt=Defensiveness.  Defensive statements become practically an involuntary reflex in homes where contempt and criticism are regular visitors. It is understandable. After all, who wouldn’t put up their guard in response to an accusatory, belittling spouse? Defensiveness is fundamentally a self-preserving tactic.

As understandable as this response can be, it is still hugely destructive. It builds walls. Rather than allow room for connectedness, the foundation for conflict resolution, it tends to breed emotional distance. Defensiveness blocks healing and forgiveness.

Horseman #4: Stonewalling

Because stonewalling is not explicitly aggressive, couples often underestimate its destructive potential. But it can be just as devastating to a relationship in its passiveness.  In his book The Marriage Clinic, Gottman defines stonewalling as occurring “when the listener withdraws from the interaction”  In other terms, stonewalling is when one person shuts down and closes himself/herself off from the other. It is a lack of responsiveness to your spouse and the interaction between the two of you.

Typically when someone is listening to you, they exhibit various signs of doing so. This includes non-verbal cues such as nodding, eye contact, and facial expressions, as well as verbal cues such as “uh-huh,” or “yup.” People who stonewall don’t demonstrate any of these cues of responsiveness that a typical listener does. Instead they may appear stiff and rigid, glance away, down, and around, and/or basically exhibit no signs of listening or being present in the interaction. Stonewalling can also include physically getting up and walking out while the other person is trying to speak.  Repeating the same statement over and over again and repeatedly talking over the other person are also examples of stonewalling behavior.

Gottman found the following to be true about stonewallers in his research – men are more like to stonewall than women (kind of like women are more likely to criticize than men), but when women stonewall, it is quite predictive of divorce.

Stonewalling is sometimes an attempt to self-sooth or decrease the intensity of the situation. That is why it makes sense for men to more frequently exhibit stonewalling.  A lot of times in arguments or interactions, men do not know what to do or how to communicate what is going on, how they feel, etc., so they just shut down to keep from getting too upset. Men, unlike women, are not naturally wired to be good communicators. This shutting down may sound like a positive thing, but it isn’t. It is the person closing themselves off from communication and from their spouse. This in turn causes a chain reaction that ultimately leads to a more intense interaction. Shutting down and becoming unresponsive to your spouse is not a good idea or option, and as Gottman has found, is one of the big predictors of divorce.

The Secret to Fighting Fair

Now that you know the four horsemen, make a conscious effort to keep them in the stable before they trample your marriage. One of the best ways to do this is to make “repair attempts” during your next argument. According to Gottman, repair attempts are any words or actions that prevent a conflict from escalating out of control. As simple as it sounds, repair attempts keep a marriage from becoming negative, hostile and distant.

Repair attempts can be as basic as changing the topic, giving a compliment, apologizing or saying, “I’ve been cranky all day, can we start over?”  It can be as simple as saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll get through this” or cracking a joke to diffuse tension. Research even shows couples who touch during arguments also tend to show higher relationship satisfaction. Do whatever works for you when conflict rears its ugly head.

Remember, the more entrenched the negative patterns of behavior in your marriage become, the more difficult it becomes to break them. Don’t become a victim of these negative cycles. When two mature people can take ownership and be flexible, they will keep their marriage strong even though they may not always agree. As a Scottish proverb says, “Better bend than break.”