by Dr. Lorin Bradbury
Question: I remember hearing you teach on behaviors that are destructive to a marital relationship. I believe you referred to them as the four horsemen. Could you write about them? Sort of a refresher for me.
John Gottman, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Washington and founder of the Gottman Institute is considered the leading expert on marriage relationships.
He has found that by observing a couple for one hour, he can predict with 95% accuracy if they will still be married fifteen years later. By watching the same interactions for only fifteen minutes, he can predict the same with 90% accuracy.
Though the formula he uses in his marriage research is complicated, through the years he has learned there are four things to focus on that give him clues to whether or not a couple will remain married.
He calls these four characteristics the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (You may be more familiar with these four horsemen in the Book of Revelation, and the power they were given to judge and destroy.)
Gottman makes a correlation between those four horsemen and four destructive behaviors he has identified in relationships: Defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt.
Defensiveness is an easy trap to fall into. When accused of something, you find yourself making excuses for doing what you did. The excuse just tells your spouse that you haven’t considered anything he or she said. In essence, by defending yourself you are ignoring our spouse.
An example of defensiveness might go something like this: Your wife asks: “Did you call Alexie and Eliza to let them know that we cannot make it for supper tonight?”
You respond: “I was just too busy today. In fact, you knew how busy I was before you asked me this morning. Why didn’t you do it yourself, instead of expecting me to do it?”
In this example, you not only responded defensively, but you tried to make your forgetfulness her fault.
Let’s see if we can come up with a better response. A nondefensive response would have been something like this: “I am so sorry I forgot to call them. I knew how busy I was going to be and I should have asked you to call them this morning. Since it’s my fault, let me give them a call them right now and apologize.”
Stonewalling is when you avoid conflict either because you are unconscious of your own feelings or because you are afraid of conflict. Rather than openly confronting an issue or issues with your spouse, you tune him out, turn away from him, or you make yourself too busy or too tired to interact with him. In other words, you simply stop relating to your husband.
Another of Gottman’s horsemen is criticism. Criticizing your wife is different than what is referred to as constructive criticism, making a suggestion for a better way to do something, or simply complaining about something.
This kind of criticism takes her apart piece by piece. An example of criticism might go something like this: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. You only think of yourself. I have a real hard time believing that you forgot; you just don’t think about me.”
Last, and the most destructive is contempt. When you attempt to communicate with your husband from a state of contempt, you are just plain mean.
You are treating him with disrespect by using weapons such as sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, and/or body language such as eye rolling.
By doing so, you husband feels despised and worthless. And if you were honest, you would have to admit that you fully intended to make him feel that way. Contempt is toxic and it must be eliminated if a marriage is to survive.
Gottman could give you many examples of contempt, but one example might go like this: “I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to meet your stinking needs, and all you do, when you come home from work is to flop down on that sofa. You are nothing but a couch potato. You are just about the sorriest excuse for a husband I can think of.”
Or, you might berate him by calling him profane names, even in front of the children.
Contempt is so destructive that Gottman would be able to predict how many colds your husband will have this winter because of your mistreatment and rejection of him and the way that kind of treatment impacts the immune system.
So if you are one who communicates by use of contempt, Gottman predicts that you will eventually experience divorce, unless you have the courage to change.
If you do have the courage to face yourself and change, you may find that your spouse as a pretty good person with some flaws. But if you can’t seem to change that entrenched habit pattern of using contempt to control your husband, seek professional help. There is help, and you can change.
Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]