The Four Horsemen of the Marital Apocalypse

Stop to consider your last fight with your spouse. The exact topic may elude you at this point. We understand. After a while, disputes — over bills, work, in-laws, or dishes still in the sink — can get confused. But contrary to popular belief, it’s not the amount of conflict in your marriage or what you discuss that determines your relationship’s survival rate. For marriage researchers, how a couple fights tends to be the best predictor of whether they’ll end up enjoying their golden years together or fighting in divorce court. So learning to fight less may not be as important as learning to fight fair.

Four deadly sins of marriage

Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington, one of the leading marriage researchers, claims he can predict with 90 percent accuracy whether a couple will divorce. In his landmark “love lab,” Gottman studies how couples interact, particularly how they communicate with each other in heated moments. After 30 years of research, he has identified four behaviors that seem to invariably spell disaster for any marriage. He ominously refers to them as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. Each couple must be vigilant and make sure that neither of them gallops into their marriage and wreaks irreversible havoc.

Horseman #1: Critical

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

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

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

Horseman #2: Contempt

You’re an Idiot. You can’t do anything right. You disgust me. These derogatory words have no place in any relationship you value. They are meant to explicitly humiliate or hurt. They are toxic and indefensible. Period.

Contempt includes, but is not limited to, insults, hostility, and sarcasm. Keep in mind that contempt can also be conveyed non-verbally. An overly harsh tone or disgusted look can escalate your argument from garden variety to World War III in the blink of an eye. Avoid contempt at all costs in your arguments. It is the most basic and childish tactic to resort to in a fight. Make an effort to respect her wife even when you disagree or feel upset with her. Contempt is like a poison. It will erode intimacy on its own. It destroys a sense of security and mutual respect. It does a lot of damage because it makes the partner feel undervalued and unloved.

Rider #3: Defensive Stance

Critical + Contempt = Defensive Stance. Defensive statements become practically an involuntary reflex in homes where contempt and criticism are regular visitors. It’s understandable. After all, who wouldn’t raise their guard in response to an accusing and belittling spouse? Defensiveness is fundamentally a self-preservation tactic.

As understandable as this response may be, it is still hugely destructive. Build walls. Instead of leaving room for connection, the basis for conflict resolution, it tends to create emotional distance. Defensiveness blocks healing and forgiveness.

Horseman #4: Obstruction

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

Obstructionists partially withdraw because they may be overwhelmed with emotion. They may keep their faces expressionless, avoid eye contact, maintain a rigid posture, avoid any cues to listen, such as nodding or breath sounds. They radiate icy distance and disapproval to their partners.

The secret of the fair fight

Now that you know all four horses, make a conscious effort to keep them in the stable before they trample on 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 word or action that prevents a conflict from spiraling out of control. As simple as it sounds, repair attempts prevent a marriage from becoming negative, hostile, and distant.

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

Remember, the more ingrained negative patterns of behavior become in your marriage, 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 if they don’t always see eye to eye. As a Scottish proverb says: “Better to bend than to break.”

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