I’ll take a guess that you didn’t marry your spouse hoping that one day you’d be signing divorce papers. You likely didn’t start your relationship anticipating that you would argue nonstop. But it is true that over time, couples tend to slip into unhelpful patterns of relating that create distance and conflict.
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.
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 comment on your partner’s behavior that implies that they are flawed or stupid. 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, using this 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 involves attacking your spouse's character in a pointed and sarcastic manner. It can include 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 justify yourself in response to a perceived attack from your spouse. Usually you notice feeling self-righteous in response to criticism or seeing 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 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.
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.
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, instead notice which of these styles of communication are your default response when you’re disagreeing with someone.
This article was originally posted on July 20, 2017.
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 arguments creating anxiety and stress in your day-to-day life? At Restored Hope, I want to support your desire to create a healthy and fulfilling marriage. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with me about how you can stop the cycle of destructive communication in your marriage and feel connected once again.