My guess is that you didn’t walk into your marriage hoping that one day you’d be signing divorce papers. You typically don’t enter into a relationship with someone that you can’t stand, or anticipating arguing nonstop. But it’s true that over time, couples tend to slip into unhelpful patterns of relating that create distance and conflict in their relationship.
John Gottman is a researcher on healthy marriages who claims that, by watching a couple interact with one another for 10 minutes, he can predict with over 90% accuracy whether they will divorce or remain married. How does he achieve this kind of wizardry?
Gottman has identified different communication patterns that are consistent in relationships headed toward divorce. When he sees these patterns, coined as the Four Horsemen, he knows this relationship is headed downhill if changes aren’t made.
Learn more about these Four Horsemen in this video:
Let's look in more depth at each type of communication he lists as a risk factor.
Criticism is the first of what I would call the “offensive strategies.” Instead of directly communicating a concern or complaint, criticism takes the form of a negative remark about your partner’s behavior that implies a flaw in their character. These statements start with an accusation, indicated by the word “you”. Criticism is usually the first Horsemen that pops up in a marriage. If it is left unchecked, the feelings of harm or pain caused by the critical communication style will likely lead the other Horsemen to develop.
Example: “You’re so inconsiderate. You always wait until the last minute to take out the trash. If you actually cared about how stressed I am, you’d do it sooner.”
As the second offensive strategy, contempt twists criticism into a more destructive pattern. Contempt is criticism coming from a place of superiority or judgment. It attacks your spouse's character in a pointed and sarcastic manner. It usually involves behaviors like name-calling, cynicism, and mocking your partner. If you've ever rolled your eyes and scoffed at your partner's choices, you likely know what contempt feels like. Gottman identifies contempt as the strongest predictor of divorce.
Example: “You’re so stupid and lazy. Don’t complain to me about having to take out the trash, like it’s so hard. You’re such an idiot.”
Defensiveness, as can be expected from its name, is the first of the “defensive strategies.” It involves making excuses to explain yourself against a perceived attack from your spouse. Usually you notice a feeling of self-righteousness in response to criticism, or a desire to see yourself as the victim. Defensiveness often comes after an insult to your pride and is an attempt to short-circuit taking responsibility. Often, it turns the tables and places the blame back on your partner.
Example: “You think I’m inconsiderate for not taking out the trash? Why would I try to be considerate when you leave the dirty dishes in the sink all day and can’t be bothered to clean them?”
This defensive strategy is a bit like an invisible killer. It’s the most difficult of the Four Horsemen to notice because it is quiet and contained. Stonewalling is characterized by checking out mentally or emotionally, withdrawing from the conversation, not responding to requests or communication, or simply walking away. I imagine it like a garage door closing over your attention: nothing is allowed in, and nothing can slip out. When stonewalling, you can feel flooded, with adrenaline coursing through you a rush. You can feel like your blood is boiling and your mind is racing, and you can't process any more information from your spouse. You might stonewall in order to avoid lashing out in anger, having seen negative effects of those outbursts before.
Example: "I don't want to talk about this anymore."
At this point, you may see yourself in one (or many!) of these styles of communication. But don't lose hope! Recognizing these destructive relationship patterns is the first step toward change. In a few weeks, we’ll talk through ways you can change your pattern of communication into a healthier and more honoring discussion with your spouse. (Hint – the video above previews some of these antidotes!)
In the meantime, pay attention to conversations with your spouse, coworkers, or friends. While it may be easier to point out how everyone around you is using the Four Horsemen, I encourage you to notice which of these styles of communication are your default response when you’re disagreeing with someone.
Have you noticed these communication patterns crop up in your arguments with your spouse or partner? Are you feeling exhausted and hopeless about being able to change how you talk to your spouse? Are your constant arguments creating anxiety and stress in your day-to-day life? At Restored Hope, we want to support your desire to create a healthy and fulfilling marriage using Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Give us a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with us about how you can stop the cycle of destructive communication in your marriage and feel connected once again.