Psychologist Dr. John Gottman has spent over 40 years researching relationships. Considered a leading expert on marital stability, Dr. Gottman is famously known for predicting whether couples will divorce with 90% accuracy.
How has he developed such a keen eye for identifying ill-fated marriages? Dr. Gottman credits the work he’s done with over 3,000 newlywed couples. The research, he says, reveals four key characteristics that significantly predict divorce. In his professional opinion, these characteristics are so damning and foreboding that Dr. Gottman has since dubbed them “the four horsemen.”
If you recognize any of these telltale signs of impending relationship failure, keep reading to learn how imago relationship therapy works and how the imago communication method can help you reverse the downward spiral.
According to Dr. Gottman, criticism hurts a marriage when it involves attacks on a person’s character rather than their behaviors. This isn’t to be confused with constructive feedback, which can be uncomfortable but necessary for expressing concerns, establishing healthy boundaries, and resolving conflict.
Consider these two very different statements:
“You’re always late. You’re so disrespectful of my time.”
“I feel upset when you’re late to dinner because it makes me feel like you don’t value spending time together.”
In the first example, the person is putting down their partner and making an absolute judgment about who they are. In the second example, the person is addressing an issue they have with their partner’s actions. The first statement is simply hurtful, while the second is more conducive to healthy conflict resolution and, for lack of a better term, more loving.
Over time, repeated criticism can lead to deep feelings of rejection and distrust—and it also tends to give rise to the other three horsemen.
When you hear the word contempt, it’s probably easy to imagine an associated facial expression, such as a sneer or a look of disgust and anger. This ugly emotion makes a person feel as if they’re better than their spouse. They may try to assert moral superiority over their partner by using put-downs, insults, cruel sarcasm, and ridicule. Contempt is a bigger, more hurtful step beyond criticism and is a major harbinger of divorce.
It’s easy to imagine how contempt hurts a person emotionally. But research suggests that people in contemptuous relationships are more likely to become physically ill as well, likely because chronic stress can trigger systemic inflammation and actually weaken a person’s immune system.
It’s normal to feel defensive in the face of unfair criticism, contempt, or attacks on your personal character. But when a person starts to exhibit a lot of defensiveness within their relationship, this can quickly lead to a stressful and unproductive cycle of blame.
Unhealthy defensiveness looks like frequent attempts to justify or make excuses. Instead of trying to see things from their partner’s perspective or own their role in a problem, a defensive partner will tend to self-victimize themselves or shift the blame onto their partner. Instead of addressing and solving problems together, a couple may enter cycle of finger-pointing and guilt, which can also feedback into further criticism and contempt.
With enough chaos and negativity in a relationship, one or both partners may eventually choose simply to shut down and withdraw. Called “stonewalling” in psychological literature, this is a poor coping mechanism that can annihilate healthy communication and marital bonds. When your spouse won’t talk to you, communication is impossible.
What Foes Stonewalling Look Like?
Since it’s essentially an evasive maneuver, a person who stonewalls their partner may:
- Give the “silent treatment”
- Physically leave the room or home
- “Tune out” by busying themselves with something else
- Perform repetitive or obsessive behaviors
Ultimately, the decision to stonewall is the decision not to cooperate. And let’s face it—all relationships require cooperation and teamwork, even healthy ones. So, when two partners in an already unhealthy bond fail to work together, it’s an ominous sign that irrevocable breakdown of the marriage lies ahead.
5 Strategies for Keeping The Four Horsemen Out of Your Relationship
As you can see, any one of the four horsemen can exacerbate the others and seriously threaten the health and integrity of a relationship. So, if you’re worried about learning how to keep these nefarious traits out of your marriage, consider these five tips:
- Raise your awareness. You and your spouse don’t need to become hyper-vigilant about the way you interact with each other. But it helps to stay open and more willing to notice unloving behaviors when and if they do pop up. Depending on your experiences and current level of awareness, this may feel a bit like being a fish trying to notice the water. If so, you may want to work with a licensed mental health professional or marriage counselor who can provide valuable objective insights and help you “unstick” yourself from strong habits and beliefs.
- Practice being an active listener. This is a priceless skill that will benefit all your relationships, including the one you have with your spouse. Active listening techniques to develop include using “I statements,” not interrupting, making eye contact, and asking clarifying questions.
- Start from the assumption that you are 100% responsible for your words, thoughts, and actions. Be prepared to own your role in conflict and offer genuine apologies when it’s appropriate.
- Take care of yourself! We tend to snap and act less thoughtfully when we’re overwhelmed. So, take breaks and adopt healthy stress-management strategies (like exercise, journaling, meditation, and deep breathing).
- Be a thankful partner. It’s easy to take our loved ones for granted. When you regularly express your appreciation and gratitude for your partner, you’re investing in the emotional bank account you both share. This can keep the negative interactions at bay and foster a stronger healthier bond.
Are you in an unhealthy relationship with someone and want to learn how you can learn communicate with one another and improve your marriage? Contact The Marriage Restoration Project to learn more about our intensive marriage counseling retreats. We host affordable group retreats throughout the year in Baltimore and New York, and private intensive couples retreats across the country in Los Angeles, CA; Bolder, CO; Titusville, NJ; Cleveland, OH; and more.