John Gottman is a psychologist in the US who has studied married couples in great depth. This chap has mastered the skill of sussing couples so mastered that he can work out within three minutes of observing them talk whether they will stay together or separate. He gets it right 96% of the time! When guru's talk, the wise listen! So what's Gottman got that the rest of us haven't? Is he an empath? Does he have magical powers? Well, no, but he does run a whacking huge "lab" that he puts couples in to observe how they behave.
Don't imagine this is any normal lab, think Big Brother house rather than hospital micro department. Gottman's gang have observed over 700 couples in the lab. The couple isalways told to take their normal stuff from home so they can have a "typical" weekend together. They are microphoned up and videoed through one way mirrors. Afterwards they answer tonnes of questionnaires and their relationships are watched over many years to assess how they progress.I can hear you ask what Gottman has concluded? Tonnes of worthwhile information that psychotherapists like me can pass on to you to improve the relationship between you and your partner.
One of the things Gottman has spotted in relationships that are failing is the presence of what he calls "The four Horsemen of divorce". In this article I am going to explain what these four horsemen are. In a following article I will describe what the antidotes to the four horsemen are.
Horseman 1: Criticism.
When couples critise each other, Gottman has seen that they seperate more frequently. Complaining is OK, criticism is lethal to your relationship. So what's the difference? When we complain about something there are no judgment calls on our partner. A complaint will focus on a specific action that your partner carried out. So "I feel annoyed that you didn't load the dishwasher last night" is a complaint and "you didn't load the dishwasher last night. You're so lazy and useless around the house and you never help" is a criticism. It's difficult for your partner to know how to change when you criticise. The chances are that they will bring in horseman number 2: defensiveness.
Horseman 2: Defensiveness
This is where when your partner complains or criticises you defend yourself passionately and accept no responsibility for the problem. So to "I feel angry you didn't load the dishwasher last night" a defensive response would be "well why didn't you tell me? You knew you wanted me to do it!". It's pretty much saying to your partner "the problem is not me, it's you".
Horseman 3: Contempt
Contempt is where you suggest that your spouse is not as good as you in some way. Transactional Analysis would say that you see yourself as "OK" and you make your partner "not OK". It can be spotted in body language, facial expression and certain speech patterns such as sarcasm and cynicism. Blatant contempt would be name calling, mockery and hostile humour. Gottman labels contempt as the worst of the four horsemen. When contempt is there it's very difficult to have a productive discussion with your partner. Basically contempt is saying to your partner "you are disgusting" and that is a very strong negative message to send and an impossible position to come back from. When we demean our partner the love and affection within the relationship leaks away.
Horseman 4: Stonewalling
This is where one partner does not respond to what the other partner is saying. They are impassive. As emotionless as a stone wall. The stonewaller may continue to read or watch TV as if their spouse has said nothing. The stonewaller clearly communicates that the other person is unimportant. Stone walling is usually carried out by men (like criticism is most commonly carried out by women). It could be seen as one way to cope with being bombarded with complaints or criticism but it's a hopeless way of relating to others and highly likely to result in the relationship becoming worse.
So there they are - Gottman's four horsemen of divorce. You may well read down the list and see some or even all of these in your relationship. Don't worry. The first stage of change is to see what you are doing wrong and then take action and change it. There is hope and each of these relationship poisons has an antidote. Read my next post to find out what they are.