Dr. John Gottman has compiled thousands of hours of research in an attempt to gain better clarity of what behaviors strengthen marital relationships and conversely the behaviors that degrade them. In his popular book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman provides a seven tiered structure that couples can utilize to help build a more loving and intimate marriage. While there is much that couples are encouraged to do in his book, Dr. Gottman also uncovers several behaviors that couples should avoid. To the behaviors of negative criticism, stonewalling, contempt, and defensiveness, Dr. Gottman gave the title The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as he found them to be corrosive to marital unity and indicative of divorce.
*Negative criticism occurs when one seeks to make a critique of a behavior but winds up attacking their spouse with a personal insult instead sticking with the issue at hand.
*Stonewalling is characteristically demonstrated by men and occurs when a spouse becomes silent and disengaged from an argument. While this behavior is often employed in order to avoid fanning the flames of anger, it usually has the opposite effect on the situation and provides fertile soil for resentment to take root in the marriage.
*Contempt is simply a ratcheted up experience of negative criticism. It is a psychologically and emotionally abusive behavior used to strike at the core of one’s spouse and places him or her on a lower plane.
*Defensiveness is the temptation for a spouse to profess innocence during conflict rather than to listen and truly hear what is being said to them. An interesting and perhaps first example of defensiveness can be found in the Book of Genesis, in the Adam and Eve narrative. When asked by God, “Have you eaten from the tree I commanded you not to eat from?” Adam responds with defensiveness by saying, “The woman you put here with me, she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.” Consequently, God was not pleased with this response, nor do I imagine that Eve felt closer to Adam after he demonstrated that he was willing to throw her under the bus in order to save his own life. From this vantage point, Adam’s response is almost comedic and serves as a poignant example for how not to deal with confrontation regardless of how difficult the topic may be.
With the exception of contempt, instances of The Four Horsemen can be observed in nearly all marriages, not just those headed for divorce. It is the frequency of their usage and the inability of spouses to recognize their destructive power that earns these behaviors their ominous title. Dr. Gottman writes that, “There is no greater gift a person can give to their spouse than a sense of being truly understood.” To engage in the Four Horsemen is to deprive the marital dyad of that monumental bonding, unifying, and I would argue, sanctifying experience. Feeling known and understood by one’s spouse creates a safe place to heir grievances, to share in life’s greatest difficulties and to partake in it’s most beautiful moments. Engaging in The Four Horsemen simply deprives married couples of those opportunities.
Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. (1st ed.). New York: Three Rivers press.