by Kassandra Lamb
One of the big names in the field of researching marriage and divorce is Dr. John Gottman. He uses this line (from Revelations in the Bible)—the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—to describe the four warning signs that best predict divorce.
I will briefly describe them, then talk about their opposites; in other words, what you need to do instead, if you want a healthy long-term relationship.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse re: Relationships
Criticism – Of course all couples have complaints about some of their spouses’ behaviors. But Gottman contends that when complaints about behavior deteriorate into criticism of the person’s character, the couple’s relationship is going in the wrong direction.
Why can’t you put your dirty clothes in the hamper instead of throwing them on the floor? You’re so lazy!
The first part is a complaint, although poorly phrased if one wants to solicit cooperation. The last part is criticism.
Contempt – Over time, criticism may morph into contempt, in which one partner acts disrespectfully toward the other and assumes a position of superiority. (Or they may take turns doing this to each other.) This may take the form of ridicule, name-calling (idiot, selfish, etc.), sarcasm, eye-rolling or other derisive body language, etc.
You are so selfish! (said in a derisive tone) You know, it really isn’t that hard to pick up your dirty clothes. (picks up a sock from the floor and, with exaggerated movements, deposits in the hamper, then folds arms over chest) There, now that wasn’t so hard, was it? (more derisive tone)
Defensiveness – This is refusing to take any responsibility for any part of a problem and/or deflecting blame onto one’s partner. This may be one party’s defense against criticism or contempt, or one or both partners may be defensive by nature.
In the latter instance, they may get defensive in response to even the most carefully phrased complaints about behavior.
Dear, (said in as pleasant a tone as possible) I would really appreciate it if you would try to develop the habit of putting your dirty clothes in the hamper.
You know how tired I am when I get home. (said in a defensive tone) If you were a better wife, you wouldn’t mind keeping things neat.
Stonewalling – Gottman originally called this “Withdrawal” and described it as the sign that the relationship might very well be beyond the point of no return. Withdrawal or stonewalling is when one party stops listening at all. They withdraw from the interaction and shut down. They may shrug and walk away. Or they may just stop talking and wait for their spouse to wind down, maybe while doing some distracting activity such as washing the dishes.
(For more on the Four Horsemen, check out this article, plus a cool video with more examples.)
The Opposites of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse re: Relationships
When I first started teaching psychology at the college level, I developed this list of the counterparts of the Horsemen. I consider them to be the four most important factors in healthy long-term relationships. (Again, these also apply to friendships.)
Unconditional Love and Acceptance:
This is the opposite of criticism and contempt. One can still complain about behavior and ask their spouse to change those irritating behaviors. But you accept their person as they are, warts and all.
This is sometimes easier said than done. First of all, where is the line between behavior and being? Behaviors may not be as easy to change as one might think they should be, if they are ingrained in the person’s makeup.
For example, my husband is a slob. He comes by this naturally. His mother was a slob before him. He is also a random thinker (see this post for more on random vs. sequential thinkers). And randoms’ living spaces tend to reflect the lack of sequential organization that comes naturally to sequentials like me.
For the first eight or nine years of our marriage, I nagged him about picking up after himself, and he tuned me out. (This was before I knew about random vs sequential thinking.) Finally, it dawned on me that the current approach wasn’t working. I needed to accept that he was a slob and work from there.
So he and I sat down and discussed the problem, not from the perspective of me criticizing him but from the viewpoint of this is a problem we need to resolve together. Because I did not want a constantly messy house.
The outcome was that we established slob zones throughout the house. In every room, and in some of them in two places, we designated an area where he could randomly dump his stuff—one end of the breakfast bar in the kitchen, next to his recliner in the family room, the tops of his dresser and nightstand in the bedroom, etc.
He could be a total slob there, and if I found any of his stuff elsewhere in the room, I would just toss it on top of the random pile in the slob zone. This system has worked beautifully now for 35 years!
Mutual Trust and Respect:
These too are the opposites of criticism and contempt. Indeed, if you nurture an attitude of respect and trust, then criticism and contempt will not be able to take root in your relationship.
But again, respect is not always as easy as it sounds. For one thing, respect includes honoring the things that your partner feels are important even if you don’t.
Part of the problem with my husband’s slobbiness was that it felt disrespectful to me (although he didn’t mean it that way). Why couldn’t he respect my desire to keep the house neat and looking nice?
But when we sat down and discussed it, with each of us respecting the other—me getting it that being a slob was part of his nature and him getting it that I had a right to a neat house—then we were able to come up with a solution that worked for both of us. (For more on this extremely important aspect of respect, see this post.)
Mutual trust is the flip side of the respect coin. If you are respectful of each other, that makes you more trustworthy.
It is also important that you be trustworthy in the areas that are most important to your spouse, and vice versa. This often comes down to shared values. Both my husband and I highly value fidelity. We trust that the other will be faithful.
In some areas, a partner may not be totally trustworthy (nobody is in every aspect of life). In those cases, again the couple needs to work out a way to deal with it. My husband’s randomness is also reflected in his spending habits, while I am frugal to a fault. He is much more willing to buy things on credit than I am.
After several years of periodically arguing over money, we had come to understand a few things about each other. He’d come to trust that I was very good at managing money. And I trusted that he would only run the credit cards up so far before it made him nervous. Then he’d stop buying things for a while until the bills were paid down some.
So we separated our money. We have three checking accounts, his, mine and ours, and I manage the “ours” account (for paying bills). We also have separate credit cards. Therefore, I never see his credit card balances, and he never has to sweat over trying to manage the joint bills, when that is not his strength.
How trustworthy each person is in the various aspects of life is something a couple hopefully identifies and deals with before getting married. If one partner is not trustworthy in an area that is important to the other, and they can’t come up with a work-around, than they might not be a good match.
This is the opposite of both criticism and defensiveness. If either of these are part of your or your partner’s communication styles, then that needs work!
Learning to communicate appropriately is crucial to a healthy relationship. The best approach to breaking the criticism tendency is to use “I” statements as much as possible.
You’re late again, and you didn’t call. How can you be so thoughtless?
I get really worried when you’re not home on time. I’d appreciate a quick call so I know you’re okay.
A way to break defensiveness tendencies is to look for some part of the problem that you are willing to own.
You know how busy I am at work. I can’t just drop everything to call you. You’re such a worrywart.
I’m sorry. I just get caught up in what I’m doing sometimes and don’t realize how late it’s getting.
This paves the way to finding a solution, such as:
How about if you text me if you’re getting worried, and I’ll send a quick text back.
This is the opposite of stonewalling/withdrawal. Commitment can best be defined as a willingness to make the effort to maintain the relationship.
When a recurring problem never seems to get resolved and you feel like you and your partner are just going around in circles, instead of withdrawing, try shifting gears.
Say something like:
You know, the way we’ve been approaching this isn’t working. Let’s sit down and try to come up with a different approach.
Then practice those “I” statements and fight the urge to be defensive until you both have a better handle on the other’s point of view. Often the solution will present itself at that point.
If both partners are truly committed to the relationship but the unhealthy communication patterns of criticism and defensiveness seem to be too ingrained, this is where counseling can really help. Because communication patterns can be changed, it just takes work.
As a skilled third party, a counselor can identify where your communication is going astray and recommend alternatives. There are also tried and true interventions to help you and your mate practice better patterns. An example would be holding one’s hands in a T for “timeout” or palm out in a “stop” gesture, to let your partner know that you are becoming overwhelmed and need a cooling-off period (an alternative to withdrawal).
Next time, a topic page summarizing gender differences that can trip us up in relationships. Stay tuned!
Your thoughts on all this? Do you recognize any of the four horsemen in your relationships? How strong are you in the four factors that can counter the horsemen?
Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a cozy series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy mysteries, set in Central Florida.
We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.
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Vinnie HansenNovember 17, 2020 at 4:42 pm
We keep working away at these things! Relationships require a certain vigilance, I think. Good post, Kassandra!
Kassandra LambNovember 17, 2020 at 5:18 pm
Yes they do! We’re never done maintaining them.
Brenda RigganNovember 22, 2020 at 11:28 am
This was a very interesting and thought provoking article. Thank you for the opportunity to read it.
Kassandra LambNovember 27, 2020 at 12:02 pm
You’re welcome, Brenda. Glad you found it interesting!