John Gottman is a psychologist in America who has studied married couples in great depth. This man has got the art of reading couples so off pat that he can tell 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 ordinary mortals haven’t? Is he an empath? Does he have magical powers? Well, no, but he does have a ruddy great big “lab” that he sticks couples in to observe how they behave.
This lab isn’t a lab in the usual sense, think big brother house rather than science geek basement. Gottman and his team have observed over 700 couples in the lab. The couple is pretty much asked to bring their normal stuff from home so they can have a “typical” weekend together. They are wired for sound and filmed through one way mirrors. Afterwards they answer extensive questionnaires and their relationships are monitored over several years to see how they progress. What has Gottman found out from all of this research? Tonnes of useful information that I can pass on to you!
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 post I am going to explain what these four horsemen are. In the next post I’ll tell you how you can keep them from your relationship door (click here to read).
Horseman 1: Criticism.
Gottman has observed that couples that criticise each other split up more often. Complaining is OK, criticism is fatal 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 angry 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. There’s nowhere for your partner to go 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 vigorously 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 remind 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 infer that your partner is inferior to you in some way. In TA terms it’s when you invite your partner to be “not OK” whilst you remain “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 present it’s impossible 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 partner is not talking to them. The message sent by the stonewaller is “you are not important to me and your comments are not valid”. Stone walling is most commonly 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 recognise what you are doing wrong and then make the decision to do it differently. There is hope and each of these relationship poisons has an antidote. Read the post “Four ways to improve your relationship – Antidotes to the Four Horsemen” to find out what they are.