Communication issues are not an uncommon problem cited by those seeking marital therapy. Renowned author and marriage therapist, Dr. John Gottman suggests that communication styles are not only at the heart of these communication issues, but that these same styles also predict the durability of the relationship. Borrowing from Dr. Gottman, his metaphoric example of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse depicts the end of times in the New Testament through conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. In marriage, these metaphoric Four Horsemen manifest themselves as criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
Criticism focuses on bashing the other person’s character as opposed to raising a legitimate complaint. An example of a criticism is: “you’re so selfish, you never think about me.” This is directly opposite to voicing a complaint such as: “please call and ask me if I need anything the next time you stop at the store.” Legitimate complaints focus on a specific behavioral modification instead of taking issue with who the other person is in their being. Criticism is the gatekeeper for the other three horseman. When it becomes pervasive, it opens the gate for the other three, far deadlier horseman to follow. Criticism causes the other person to feel like a victim of a verbal assault, to feel rejected and hurt. Subsequently, the couple often fall into a pattern where criticism reappears with even greater frequency, intensity and duration.
Secondly, at the heart of contempt is the desire to be mean and hurt the other person through the use of sarcasm, ridiculing, rolling one’s eyes or using any other language or behavior to ensure the other person feels worthless and despised. Contempt may show itself as: “You’re tired becauase you stayed at home all day with the kids?! Try working a 12 hour shift and then come home to everyone needing you! Please!” In his research, Dr. Gottman learned that couples who exhibit contempt also suffer far more from colds and other illnesses because their immune systems weaken. This is because contempt acts like a crock-pot of sorts, allowing stews or thoughts to sit and boil over long periods of time, inevitably increasing the negative feelings towards the other person, just as a stew that sits becomes richer over time. Contempt causes the user to assume a position of superiority over the other person and subsequently is the single greatest predictor of divorce according to Dr. Gottman.
The third horseman, defensiveness, seems to be ever-present when things are shaky in the marriage. When one feels unjustly or unfairly accused of something, we offer excuses or explanations so that our partner will back off and leave us alone! This rarely works however as it seems to signal to our partner that we don’t take them seriously, that we are trying to make them buy into something they clearly don’t believe and, that we are disregarding their concerns. For example, a husband might follow-up with his wife about a previous discussion on finances: “Did you deposit the check?” to which the wife might respond, “there’s no way I could’ve done that with how busy my day was. You know that. Why didn’t you just do it yourself?” We see here that not only is the response defensive, but it also becomes the other person’s fault. Defensiveness breeds further defensiveness because at the heart of it is blame.