Couples therapist and researcher Dr. John Gottman analyzed years of research to determine why some couples thrive and others fizzle. One of the many useful findings from his research is the identification of what he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. These are negative communication styles which can really damage a relationship, and need to be minimized, if not eliminated, for couples to improve their relationships. Below, I’ve summarized these four characteristics, and invite readers to consider how the presence of the Four Horsemen may be affecting their communication. For more detailed information on these and other suggestions from Dr. Gottman, please consult his excellent book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, published by Three Rivers Press. By the way, these suggestions apply to almost any relationship, not just that between spouses.
The Four Horsemen
Criticism. It’s important to distinguish between a complaint and criticism. A complaint only addresses the specific action to which you object. For instance, “I don’t like it when you leave the towels on the bathroom floor” is a complaint. However, when that sentiment becomes “You’re a slob and you don’t appreciate how hard I work to keep this house tidy”, a form of character assassination has taken place. This is what Dr. Gottman refers to as criticism, and, as you might guess, it doesn’t do much good for your relationship.
Contempt. Contempt often takes the form of sarcasm, cynicism, negative body language like eye-rolling, or mean-spirited humor. If you have ever heard someone say mockingly “I suppose you could do better” or try to get a laugh by embarrassing or belittling someone else, you have witnessed contempt.
Defensiveness. Most of us are familiar with defensiveness. This is an individual’s attempt to blame someone else for his or her own behavior—to pass the buck and avoid taking responsibility. It’s the kind of style reflected by statements like “If you had just reminded me, I wouldn’t have sent in the house payment late” or “You drive me to drink”.
Stonewalling. Stonewalling means withdrawing from a conversation physically, verbally, emotionally, or all three. Stonewallers may look down or away to avoid eye contact, or they might bury their heads in books or newspapers. They act as though they couldn’t care less about what is being said. Stonewallers may think they are avoiding a fight, but they are also avoiding the relationship.