Marriage researchers have found 4 characteristics that almost guarantee divorce (or a very unhappy marriage) when present in your relationship. Called the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, these 4 characteristics are toxic and must be changed if you are to have a positive, loving, and lasting relationship.
Dr. Gottman is a well known and respected marriage researcher who is able to predict the outcome of a relationship with over 90% accuracy just by observing a couple for 30 minutes while having an argument. If the 4 Horsemen are present, Gottman predicts the odd are not in your favor.
If you or your partner are displaying any or all of these behaviors, it’s important that you make a commitment to first become more aware of the behavior and second to change it as soon as possible.
In order from least to most harmful to the relationship, here they are…
It’s ok to tell your partner about things you would like them to change in a respectful and productive way but criticism is a different (and harmful) habit. Criticism is attacking your partner’s personality or character, usually with the intent of making someone wrong.
Criticism would be saying something like “You are so rude! I was trying to be nice and you completely brushed off my attempt to help you make dinner.” A better way to say that would be “I feel hurt that you brushed off my attempt to help you make dinner. I was just trying to be helpful and the way you spoke to me came across as really rude.” Stay away from generalizations such as “you always…” “you never…” “you are…” “you’re the type of person who…” “why are you so…”
Women tend to criticize more than men but that doesn’t make men exempt by any means. Make sure to rephrase those critiques on your partner’s character to be kinder, gentler and more about the behavior than the person’s character.
Being defensive involves avoiding responsibility for your part in the argument. Someone who is defensive sees himself as a victim and is more focused on warding off a perceived attack than resolving an argument. He will often make excuses to prove he was not at fault, blaming his partner or outside circumstances for his behavior. He may engage in cross-complaining meaning he meets his partner’s complaint with another complaint of his own, thus ignoring or invalidating his partner’s complaint.
“No, I didn’t forget the tickets! You were rushing me when I left the house so I didn’t have time to double check that I had them!”
“I wouldn’t have to yell if you would just listen to what I had to say!”
“Maybe if you would stop nagging me, I would actually want to help out around the house once in a while.”
It takes two to argue and there is always something you can take responsibility for in any situation. Rather than thinking of how you are going to win an argument and prove your partner wrong, ask yourself what is your ultimate goal? Is your goal to be happy or to be right? Would you rather resolve the situation and go back to having a harmonious relationship or prove to your partner that you were right and she was wrong?
Try listening to your partner and empathizing with their point of view before responding with your own point of view. Taking responsibility for some portion of the argument will immediately make your partner less defensive and more likely to want to compromise or give in entirely. The quickest way to getting what you want is remain humble, express how you feel, validate your partner’s feelings and ask for forgiveness or a compromise.
“Oh my goodness, I cannot believe I forgot the tickets! I was rushing out the door and didn’t double check before we left. I am so sorry to have ruined our night like that.”
“I’m sorry I raised my voice. I guess I just felt like I wasn’t being heard by you and I really want us to communicate effectively so I think I got a little impatient. I feel really strongly about this topic and I know you do too. Let’s try again.”
“You’re right, I could help out more around the house and I understand why you’re frustrated. I guess I’ve just been rebelling a bit because I feel like you’ve been reminding me about cleaning up so much. If I promise to be better about cleaning, would you promise to give me a week without nagging to prove myself to you?”
A technique many couples find helpful in improving their communication is the Imago Dialogue. The Imago Dialogue is a structured way of speaking and listening to each other so that each person feels heard and understood.
Stonewalling tends to be a behavior more typical of men than women. Stonewalling is defined as withdrawing from the conversation or even the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. This looks like a husband staring at his wife as she talks but not making any indication that he hears her or that she is even there. He might walk away without acknowledging that he needs a break from the conversation or simply start looking at his phone and tuning out what she has to say.
Partners engaging in stonewalling may think they are being neutral and avoiding making a situation worse by saying something that will upset their partner but stonewalling actually conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation, disconnection, and/or smugness.
If you need a break from the conversation, it’s best to let your partner know that you are feeling overwhelmed and would like to talk about this when you are both in a better state of mind. Gottman’s research shows that when your heart rate goes above about 95 beats per minute, you are not able to think as effectively and taking a break is more productive than continuing the conversation at that point.
Decide upon a mutually agreeable time (preferably within the next 24 hours) to come back to the conversation once you have both had a chance to calm down and think things through rationally. This way you both know the issue will be addressed and you can focus on what you want to say to your partner as opposed to worrying about whether you will even have a chance to say it.
Contempt conveys a sense of superiority and often makes the recipient feel stupid or less than the person displaying contempt. Rolling your eyes at your partner or making sarcastic comments to mock your partner are classic displays of contempt. Other signs of contempt include insults, name-calling, hostile humor, using a condescending tone of voice, and sneering. Contempt is the most damaging of the horsemen because it destroys the fondness and adoration between a couple. Contempt has even been linked to illness…the more contempt a person experiences from their significant other, the more likely they are to get sick!
We have a tendency to forget all manners when talking to the ones we love and treat them in ways we would never treat a co-worker or stranger. This is because we have a different level of comfort with loved ones and they also have the ability to trigger us in ways that strangers cannot.
That being said, if anyone deserves respect and polite treatment, it is your loved ones. Speak to your partner the way you would speak to your boss. Be polite and respectful, choose your words wisely, say things in a way that leads to them feeling safe to open up rather than feeling attacked and defensive. In short, act like the most important relationship in your life depends on the way you speak to your partner because, well, it does.
Ok, these are definitely present in my relationship. Is it doomed?!
If you read this article and had a moment of panic as you realized you and/or your partner does one or all of these, don’t worry, not all is lost. It’s possible to change your habits now that you are aware of how detrimental they actually are to the health and future success of your relationship.
Make a commitment to change these behaviors and replace them with more adaptive ways of arguing and communicating. Start first by catching yourself in the behavior and acknowledge that you are doing it. Find a way that your partner can point out if he/she notices you engaging in any of the 4 Horsemen and give him/her permission to tell you in a loving and helpful way. Work on the phrasing of how you would like to receive this feedback with your partner so that you do not become defensive when you hear it.
As you become more aware of the presence of these behaviors, brainstorm with your partner (and if need be a couple’s therapist) on alternative ways to express yourself that are less detrimental to the relationship. To help you get started, here is a link to a free download of The Ultimate Guide to Repairing your Relationship by Dr. Sarah Schewitz.
This increased awareness and commitment to eliminating the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse from your relationship can make the difference between ending up “happily ever after” or errr, not.