Four Interactions that Doom Your Relationship

DisagreementBased on the research of Dr. John Gottman

You may have heard of Dr. John Gottman. He’s known as the marriage researcher who can predict with 94% accuracy whether a couple will divorce. That’s not all he’s known for, but that piece of research certainly caught media attention.

His dire predictions were based on four types of interactions common to troubled couples. These interactions generally began with what Gottman called a “harsh startup,” that is, beginning the conversation with anger, accusation, or contempt.

As these conversations continued, Gottman noted four particular negative interactions which, if unchecked, were so damaging to a relationship that Gottman dubbed them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They almost guaranteed the ending of the relationship—and they still do.

The “four horsemen” generally enter marriage interactions in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, as described below.

Horseman 1: Criticism. You will always have some complaints about the person you live with. But there’s an important distinction between complaint and criticism: Complaint only addresses the specific action that triggers your reaction. Criticism is more global — it adds on some negative words about your mate’s character or personality.

“I’m really angry that you didn’t sweep the kitchen floor last night after we agreed that we’d take turns doing it.” That’s a complaint — it focuses on a specific behavior. By contrast, criticism sounds more like this: “Why are you so forgetful? I hate having to always sweep the kitchen floor when it’s your turn. You just don’t give a damn, do you?” Criticism adds blame and general character assassination. Complaint can easily become criticism. All you have to do is add something like, “What is wrong with you?”

Horseman 2: Contempt. Sarcasm and cynicism are types of contempt. So are name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. In whatever form, contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict rather than to reconciliation.

Horseman 3: Defensiveness. When conversations become so negative, critical, and attacking, it should come as no surprise that we defend ourselves. Although this is understandable, research shows that it rarely has the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. Further, defensiveness at its worst, takes the form of blaming your partner for what they’re complaining about—saying in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so deadly.

Horseman 4: Stonewalling. “Think of the husband who comes home from work, gets met with a barrage of criticism from his wife, and hides behind the newspaper,” says Gottman. “The less responsive he is, the more she yells. Eventually he gets up and leaves the room. Rather than confronting his wife, he disconnects from her.” Gottman adds, “By turning away from her, he is avoiding a fight, but he is also avoiding his marriage. He has become a stonewaller.” Although both husbands and wives can be stonewallers, this behavior is far more common among men.

In my Imago counseling sessions, I almost always provide my couples with a summary of the four horsemen, along with my strongest possible recommendation that they eliminate these four interactions from their marriage communications. To parents, I add that they should also eliminate the four horsemen from their interactions with their kids.

Predictably, my clients ask, “What do we do instead? What do we do with the anger, the blame, the rage?” The answer is intentional dialogue. Clients of Imago learn, among many tools, this form of verbalizing conflict. It reduces reactivity, communicates the deeper feelings beneath, and restores connection instead of rupturing it. Clients are coached by the therapist to articulate complaint in a way their partners can actually hear, enabling both to access the needs and wounds below the surface, express them in a safe context, and finally get them addressed.