They say knowledge is power, and so anyone in a romantic relationship should be aware of the four evidence-based predictors of divorce, or more generally, a relationship ending: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
These communication styles were discovered by Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist who was able to forecast with 94 percent accuracy whether or not the couples he studied would get divorced within six years. Dr. Gottman dubbed these traits the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, since they essentially spell doomsday for any marriage in which they’re present.
- Criticism: It’s important to differentiate between having complaints about your partner, and criticizing them. It’s possible to convey grievances to your spouse in a gentle and warm manner, where your viewpoints are both respected. Criticism, on the other hand, leaves your spouse feeling attacked and hurt, and as though the problem is with them as a person, rather than with their actions. To use a cliched example, it’s possible to tell your husband you feel frustrated because he keeps leaving his socks on the floor, without implying that he’s a slob, or that there’s something inherently wrong with him because he didn’t place them in the hamper. Criticism often escalates, when left unchecked, and eventually leads to the second horseman.
- Contempt: This communication style is the greatest predictor of divorce. It’s intended to leave your partner feeling that they’re beneath consideration, and that they’re worthless and deserving of scorn. When people speak to their spouse in this manner, they mock them, call them names, mimic them, and use insulting body language such as eye-rolling. A person using contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over their partner. This type of communication wounds the victim at the core, creating a toxic marital environment in which a relationship cannot survive.
- Defensiveness: This trait is typically a response to criticism or contempt. For example, if your partner accuses you of ‘always being late’ – especially if this grievance is phrased as an attack – you may jump to defend yourself. You may be quick to chime in that, actually, she’s always late, and maybe you would have been on time if you weren’t running around picking up her dry cleaning and buying groceries for the family. While it generally feels justified to become defensive, it relinquishes responsibility, and so no corrective measures are taken to improve the situation. Furthermore, excuses send the message that you don’t take your partner’s concerns seriously. Ultimately, defensiveness opens to the door to further criticism or contempt.
- Stonewalling: When you ‘stonewall,’ you refuse to communicate or cooperate with your partner, generally in response to contempt. Stonewalling can involve storming out of the house and refusing to respond to calls, or staying in the same room, but completely ignoring your spouse. It has the effect of leaving your partner with the sense that they no longer exist to you, and can be destabilizing for the recipient. Often, stonewalling occurs because you feel emotionally flooded, and as though you lack the energy or capacity to engage with your partner. It can be accompanied by a sense of hopelessness; a belief that communication is futile, since it only leads to further conflict. Unfortunately, when communication is terminated in such a harsh manner, it becomes easy to assume the worst about each other, and for bottled up anger to reach a fever pitch. Additionally, once a habit of stonewalling begins, it’s not an easy practice to give up.
When the Four Horsemen are present in your relationship, they can lend to feelings of anguish and hopelessness. Fortunately, there are antidotes to each communication style that will be discussed in our next blog post. Stay tuned!