The Four Horsemen of Divorce

Dr. John Gottman, a well-respected psychologist and marriage researcher, believes “working on your marriage every day will do more for your health and longevity than working out at a health club.” Dr. Gottman says an unhappy marriage can increase the chances of becoming ill by 35 percent and reduce life by four years. Although many people believe that anger is the root cause of unhappy relationships, Dr. Gottman, who is the author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, notes that it is not conflict itself that is the problem, but how couples handle conflict.

Venting anger constructively clears the air and gets a relationship back in balance. However, conflict does become a problem when it is characterized by the presence of what Dr. Gottman calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. In capsule form, here’s how the horsemen do the damage:

  • Criticism. Criticism means attacking a partner’s personality or character, rather than focusing on the specific behavior. Criticism is attacking with the intent of making someone right and someone wrong with generalizations: “you always…” “you never…”; “you’re the type of person who…”; “why are you so …?” It is healthy to air disagreements, but not to trash a spouse’s personality or character. “I’m upset that you didn’t take out the trash” is not the same as saying “I can’t believe you didn’t take out the trash. You’re just so irresponsible.” In general, women are more likely to pull this horseman into conflict.
  • Contempt. Contempt escalates criticism by tearing down or insulting a partner. Contempt is an open sign of disrespect. Putting down a spouse, rolling eyes or sneering, or tearing down the other person by name-calling (“bitch,” “ bastard,” “wimp,” “fat, “ “stupid,” “ugly,” “slob,” “lazy”); hostile humor, sarcasm or mockery; body language and tone of voice (sneering, rolling the eyes, curling the upper lip).
  • Defensiveness. Denying responsibility, making excuses, or meeting one complaint with another – all examples of defensiveness. Defensiveness includes seeing self as the victim, warding off a perceived attack, making excuses (external circumstances beyond  control forced an action, such as “It’s not my fault…”; “I didn’t…” ). It includes cross-complaining, which is when one partner meets another partner’s complaint with his or her own complaint or criticism (“That’s not true, you’re the one who …”; “I did this because you did that…”; and “‘yes-but’-ing,” which is to start off agreeing but end up disagreeing). A defensive stance in the middle of conflict does not help the relationship. A defensive person experiences a great deal of tension and has difficulty listening.
  • Stonewalling. People who stonewall simply refuse to respond. Occasional stonewalling can be healthy, but as a typical way of interacting, stonewalling becomes destructive. Regular stonewalling isolates a spouse. Men stonewall much more often than women do. Withdrawing from the relationship is a way to avoid conflict. Partners may think they are trying to be “neutral” but stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation, disconnection, and/or smugness. Stony silence, mutterings and a silent treatment – all are manifestations of the stonewall.

All couples ride one or more of the four horses at some point in their marriage, but when they make the home their stable, the relationship is heading for trouble. In fact, Dr. Gottman’s research reveals that the chronic presence of these four factors in a relationship can be used to predict, with over 80% accuracy, the couples that eventually divorce. When attempts to repair the damage are met with repeated rejection, Dr. Gottman says there is over a 90 percent chance the relationship will falter. As Dr. Gottman says, with work and an investment in overcoming these challenges, a marriage can improve and become successful; if left unattended, however, divorce is often inevitable.

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