For the last couple of months, I’ve been working with a lot of individual clients on the issue of marital conflict. Although I don’t do couples counselling, I do work with people individually on their relationships. To prepare for those sessions, I usually refer to work by Dr. John Gottman – a pioneer in the field of marriage counselling and research.
In his book, The Marriage Clinic Dr. Gottman shares powerful insights and strategies about what makes relationships work, and what doesn’t. According to his research, the following four behaviours were the most predictive of marital conflict and, ultimately, divorce. He named these behaviours The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.
The Four Horsemen that Perpetuate Marital Conflict
1. Criticism – As the label suggests, this behaviour is all about criticizing the other person. Although the criticism may start out as a complaint, it quickly turns into a personal attack. For example, it’s one thing to complain and say “You never take the garbage out!” But, it’s another thing when you insult the other person by saying: “You never take the garbage out because you’re so lazy!”
2. Defensiveness – We all do things that our partners don’t like. What leads to serious conflict, though, is when we act defensively and avoid taking responsibility for our actions. Here’s an example:
A: I hate it when you take the credit card without telling me. You end up spending money that we can’t afford to spend.
B: Oh yeah, what about when you spend money on all those gifts! Do I ever say anything about your shopping sprees?!
Gottman found that people who are always on the defensive create serious conflict in their relationship.
3. Contempt – Have you ever made fun or mocked your partner as an attempt to put them down? That’s contempt. This often takes the form of mocking the person and their behaviours, and when it takes place in public, its a very powerful way of belittling the other person. The Miriam-Webster dictionary defined contempt as “the act of despising.”
4. Stonewalling – Withdrawing from the conversation while the other person is talking. Apparently, men do this much more often than women. It’s not about just physically removing yourself from the situation. It’s about mentally and emotionally leaving the conversation.
So, which of these four behaviours do you think is the best single predictor of divorce?
Gottman said that when a partner shows contempt, it predicts divorce 85% of the time. He called it, “The sulfuric acid for love.” It’s a form of psychological abuse.
Repairing marital conflict
According to Gottman, every marriage or common-law relationship (even the “happy couples”) has 3 of the 4 horsemen galloping through their lives. These are criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Contempt, though, is rarely found in healthy relationships.
What makes couples stay together are their attempts at repair. Here are a few of the things they do:
- They comment on the communication itself
- They support and sooth one another
- They express appreciation to soften their complaints
Essentially, they act as their own therapists. In fact, this is when Gottman believes a couple can end marital counselling: When they are able to repair their own marriages. (Click here to read about ending individual counselling).
I used the title “Marital Conflict” in this post because Gottman’s work looked at married couples. However, in my opinion, the four behaviours he identifies can be found in all relationships, and exist whenever there is conflict between two people who care deeply for each other.
Just as we all have the capacity to criticize, act defensively, and stonewall, we also have the capacity to repair our relationships as well. However, it’s something that both partners need to do together.
Hoping this bit of psychology helps with all your relationships…
How do you repair your relationships? What are some of the important lessons you’ve learned about making a relationship work? Would love to hear your comments.
Links related to this post
- A great book summarizing Dr. Gottman’s marital advice and research, The Marriage Clinic
- Check out this YouTube video of Dr. Gottman talking about The Four Horsemen on Anderson Cooper
- Click here to read information from the APA on healthy relationships.
- Gottman identified when couples should end counselling. Here’s my take on ending counselling