The Four Horsemen of Marital Apocalypse

Stop to consider your last fight with your spouse. The exact subject may escape you at the moment. We understand. After a while, the spats – over bills, your job, in-laws or the dishes still in the sink – can all blur together. But contrary to popular belief, it’s not the amount of conflict in your marriage or what you argue about that determines your relationship’s survival rate. to marriage researchers, how a couple fights tends to be the best predicator of whether they’ll end up enjoying their golden years together or battling it out in divorce court. So learning to fight less may not be quite as important as learning to fight fair.

Dr. John Gottman of University of Washington, one of the foremost marriage researchers, claims he can predict with 90 percent accuracy if a couple will divorce. In his storied “love lab,” Gottman studies how couples interact, particularly how they communicate with each other in heated moments. After 30 years of research, he has pinpointed four behaviors that seem to invariably spell disaster in any marriage. He ominously refers to them as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Every couple needs to be vigilant and ensure none of the four gallop into their marriage and wreak irreversible havoc.

The most common horseman that emerges in long-term relationships is criticism. Frustrations, annoyances and resentment inevitably build up when couples live together – day in and day out. And criticism can be how these emotions manifest in the heat of an argument.

Note that criticism differs from complaining. Criticism focuses on the person. Complaining focuses on the behavior. This may seem like subtle nuance but research shows it is a distinction that makes a significant difference in the long term. For example, this is a critical statement: “You always drive around in circles. You are an awful driver with a terrible sense of direction.” These words are dripping with blame and accusation. They are a personal attack.

Unlike criticism, complaining has more to do with how the other person’s behavior makes you feel. Complaining usually begins with an “I” instead of “you”: “I get so frustrated when you are driving and don’t know where you are going.” See the difference? The second statement is a negative comment about something you wish were otherwise. So though “I” statements can seem awkward, they really help keep the carnage manageable during explosive moments.

You’re an idiot. You can’t do anything right. You make me sick. These contemptuous words have no place in any relationship you value. They are meant to explicitly humiliate or wound. They are toxic and indefensible. Period.

Contempt includes but is not limited to name-calling, hostility and sarcasm. Keep in mind that contempt can also be conveyed non-verbally. An excessively harsh tone or disgusted eye roll can escalate your garden-variety argument into WWIII in the blink of an eye. Avoid contempt in your arguments at all cost. It is the basest, most childish tactic to resort to in a fight. Strive to respect your wife even when you disagree or feel upset with her. Contempt is like a poison. It will single-handedly erode intimacy. It destroys a sense of security and mutual respect. It does real damage because it makes a partner feel belittled and unloved.

Criticism+Contempt=Defensiveness. Defensive statements become practically an involuntary reflex in homes where contempt and criticism are regular visitors. It is understandable. After all, who wouldn’t put up their guard in response to an accusatory, belittling spouse? Defensiveness is fundamentally a self-preserving tactic.

As understandable as this response can be, it is still hugely destructive. It builds walls. Rather than allow room for connectedness, the foundation for conflict resolution, it tends to breed emotional distance. Defensiveness blocks healing and forgiveness.

Because stonewalling is not explicitly aggressive, couples often underestimate its destructive potential. But it can be just as devastating to a relationship in its passiveness. It is, in effect, giving up. It is withdrawing emotionally. It is essentially closing the door to a resolution.

Stonewallers withdraw partly because they can feel overwhelmed with emotion. They may keep their faces expressionless, avoid eye contact, hold their posture rigid, avoid any signs of listening such as nodding or encouraging sounds. They radiate icy distance and disapproval to their partners.

Now that you know the four horsemen, make a conscious effort to keep them in the stable before they trample your marriage. One of the best ways to do this is to make “repair attempts” during your next argument. According to Gottman, repair attempts are any words or actions that prevent a conflict from escalating out of control. As simple as it sounds, repair attempts keep a marriage from becoming negative, hostile and distant.

Repair attempts can be as basic as changing the topic, giving a compliment, apologizing or saying, “I’ve been cranky all day, can we start over?” It can be as simple as saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll get through this” or cracking a joke to diffuse tension. Research even shows couples who touch during arguments also tend to show higher relationship satisfaction. Do whatever works for you when conflict rears its ugly head.

Remember, the more entrenched the negative patterns of behavior in your marriage become, the more difficult it becomes to break them. Don’t become a victim of these negative cycles. When two mature people can take ownership and be flexible, they will keep their marriage strong even though they may not always agree. As a Scottish proverb says, “Better bend than break.”