John Gottman, the founder of the Gottman Institute studied couples and determined that there are 4 communication habits that often ended in the couple becoming divorced. He calls these the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse…because they usually come before the end of a marriage.
He said he can predict a relationship failure with almost 90% accuracy if these communication patterns aren’t changed. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what the problems are that you are facing in marriage, if you are communicating in these ways…it’s what will ultimately cause your marriage to end.
Here are the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse according to Gottman:
Horseman #1 – Criticism
Criticism and critical feedback are not the same thing. Critical feedback is when you share tips and information to help a person change their behavior and get a desired result. Criticism is when you attack that person’s character.
Criticism usually comes out in the form of blaming, correcting, nagging, or disapproval.
Here is an example a critical way of addressing an issue:
You never remember to take your glass to the kitchen at night. Why can’t you clean up after yourself? You’re so lazy.
Here’s a better way to address the issue:
I feel like you leave your glass out for me to pick up and take to the kitchen. Is that what you’re trying to tell me
I’m certainly not advocating that you don’t address issues in your marriage, but if you criticise your spouse’s character, it’s going to damage your relationship. It’s ok to hold them accountable. But when you are critical of their character by calling them lazy, unmotivated, unloving, etc. they are going to be resentful. Not only that, these communication patterns usually lead to the next horseman…contempt.
Horseman #2 – Contempt
Contempt is usually a bi-product of months or years of negative thoughts about your spouse. Everything they do evokes a mean comment from you. Being sarcastic, mean, or disrespectful to your spouse should never happen. This also goes for your body language. Eye-rolling, scoffing or mimicking their movements are all signs of contempt.
Here’s a contemptuous way to address an issue:
You have too much to do? Oh boo hoo for you. I’ve got a list a mile long of things to do and I don’t have time to be your maid. Grow up, you’re not a kid.
Here’s a better way to address this issue:
It sounds like we both have a lot going on right now. I think we need to cut each other some slack. And we need to re-evaluate our schedules to see what we can get rid of.
Dealing with conflict with contempt is one of the biggest predictors of divorce in couples. If you are being genuinely mean to your spouse, calling them names, or exerting your superiority over them, this behavior has to stop right away.
My mom is known for telling us to be nice to our spouse. Well, to be nice to each other, but particularly our spouse. She started coaching me on this when I was young and nowhere near old enough to get married. It was just that important for her to tell me this over and over before I got into a relationship.
Horseman #3 – Defensiveness
Getting defensive is a natural response to criticism, whether it is true criticism or just critical feedback. Even if your spouse isn’t trying to come at you, you can get defensive when they bring up things you feel insecure about or that you’re failing at.
Being defensive usually comes out as excuses. You end up excusing away their concerns and down playing their requests to deflect responsibility…and ultimately, the guilt associated with letting them down.
Another issue with defensiveness is that it’s easy to turn the blame around on your spouse. Defensiveness makes a simple request on their part into a big fight between you.
Here’s a defensives way to handle a situation:
Spouse: Hey did you stop by the store and grab milk like I asked you to?
You: No, I forgot. Why didn’t you text me and remind me to do this? You know I can’t remember to do things.
As you can see, being defensive takes the blame and responsibility off of you for your actions and puts it on the other person. This will only lead to defensiveness or criticism on their part.
Here’s a non-defensive way to handle a situation:
Spouse: Did you grab the milk on the way home like I asked?
You: Shoot. I forget to do that. Let me run get it right now so you don’t have to go out.
Around here, when one of us is getting defensive, we use a code phrase we came up with…go team Reason. Austin started this many years ago when he would see that I was getting defensive about things. He would back off and gently remind me that we are a team and he’s not the enemy.
If your tendency is to get defensive when your spouse brings up any shortcoming on your part, then I highly recommend you come up with a code word or phrase as well. It can really diffuse the situation and keep it from escalating.
Horseman #4 – Stonewalling
While the 4 horsemen are not necessarily a 4 step phase of communication, stonewalling does have the tendency to come after a long period of criticism, contempt, and/or defensiveness. You eventually get so over those responses and communication habits from your spouse that you shut down.
Shutting down seems like something that you are justified in, especially if you are feeling attacked. This can become a really bad habit in a relationship if you let it continue.
When we first got married, we dealt with this communication habit. It actually wasn’t the result of how we were relating to each other. Rather, this was a learned behavior from home life growing up.
It took us a couple of years to really figure out how to handle it when one of us would get overwhelmed with a disagreement or confrontation. My natural tendencies were to run head first into the problem and work through it. Austin’s tendency was to get away from the situation for a bit and cool down before he could work through it.
How to Start Changing Your Relating Habits
The way we got through this poor communication habit was to talk about how to handle these situations when we weren’t in the middle of a fight. That’s my biggest recommendation to you and your spouse. If you and your spouse are using one or more of these communication habits, you need to address them when you are not in the middle of an argument.
In our marriage course, 5 Foundations of Intimacy, we talk a lot about communication. You can learn more about the course here.
Here are a few things I recommend to get this conversation started without it turning into a big fight:
1. Schedule a time to have the conversation.
Both of you need to be aware that there are problems that need to be discussed. If it will help, you can write down a list of things you want to discuss or send a few texts or emails ahead of time.
2. Have the conversation at an ideal time of the day.
Late-night discussions are the worst time to address issues. You end up being really tired and you don’t think clearly. I personally don’t believe in the advice, “You shouldn’t go to bed angry.” Actually, I say, “Go to bed angry and deal with it at a better time.”
3. Set up ground rules.
Before you really get going on the discussion, come to an agreement that if things start getting heated, you’ll back off. Also, make it really clear that you are both there to solve the problem. If either of you notice that one of the 4 horsemen is present, that you have the right to gently mention it.
Another ground rule that I advocate is to always be nice. Don’t be mean to your spouse, never say demeaning things, and always treat them with respect. Honestly, if contempt is present, there’s no way you’re going to work through anything.
4. Have the conversation in a semi-public place.
Unless you and your spouse have zero inhibitions or are in a really bad spot in your marriage, you likely won’t cause a big scene out in public. Consider having the conversation while walking around the block or at the park. Maybe even go grab dinner and eat it in the car while you discuss the situation.
5. Do not drink alcohol while discussing.
Austin and I don’t personally drink, because alcoholism runs in our family, but bringing alcohol into a discussion that could lead to a fight isn’t a great idea. It’s best for you to be completely in control of yourself and your mind. Also, you don’t need to loosen up because you’re more likely to say something hurtful.
6. Give your spouse your full attention.
When you are in the middle of discussion of this level, you need to give your spouse your full attention. This means, don’t have the conversation when the kids can come in and interrupt you. Put your phones away, put the dog up, or do whatever is necessary to give your spouse your undivided attention.
Being pulled away to handle other issues while you are in the middle of a tense discussion will only make it worse.
7. Agree to reconvene.
If the discussion starts getting out of hand, agree that you will table the discussion and reconvene at a later time. Fighting about the way you communicate is not helpful. So, if you get to a point where you’re just getting into it, then it’s time to walk away.
It’s not a failure on your part or theirs if you have to stop and try to talk about it again later. Really, it’s just a sign that this is a heavy issue and you both need some time to process it.
8. Address one issue at a time.
Keep the main thing the main thing. Don’t let yourselves get off on tangent fights. You know the kind I mean. One minute, you’re talking about how the other person gets defensive anytime you say something and the next minute, they are criticizing you for forgetting to put their glass at the sink.
If at any point you are no longer working through the problem at hand, you need to refocus the conversation. There’s no way to address every single situation and issue in one conversation. Agree to work on one thing at a time.
9. Go to counseling to work through the issues.
Don’t wait until your marriage is on life-support to go to counseling. A professional counselor can give you both the resources you need to improve your communication.
My hope is that you will change your communication styles and remove these 4 horsemen of the apocalypse from your marriage. It’s going to take time and you’ll never be perfect at it. But a couple can turn their marriage around if they put things in place to address these forms of communication and work to resolve them.