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So October is communication month. In Dr. Christie’s world, that is, not anywhere else. Communication in dating and relationships is important, even crucial, if you want to succeed at them. And I know you do, because successful relationships make life WAY better.

Today, I’m going to introduce to you a fellow author, psychologist, and academic who studies relationships… using actual scientific methods. Yes, for real. This guy knows his shit. His name is Dr. John Gottman. You’d think I’d know about him from my training, my work as a scientist, or even my years dispensing advice. But that’s not the case. I actually learned of him at a marital seminar I attended. With my ex. Just before we divorced. Yeah, long story. Although the marriage didn’t work out, boy did I learn a lot at this seminar about what marriage is and what makes it work (and fail).

Anyway, Dr. Gottman has, through observation and research, discovered how to predict with pretty decent accuracy whether a couple will make it or not. One way he does this is by watching them communicate. There are many predictors of problems, but one that’s always stuck with me is what he calls the Four Horsemen of the (Marital) Apocalypse. Any one of these things are, according to Gottman, lethal to a relationship. Recognize any of them??

1. Criticism. You’ll always find some things about your partner annoying or even downright infuriating. However, Gottman states there’s a difference between complaints (okay) and criticism (not okay). A complaint focuses on your partner’s actions, whereas criticism focuses on your partner. A complaint says, “Why didn’t you lock the door? I’m afraid we’re going to get robbed.” Criticism says, “Why can’t you remember the lock the door? It’s like you don’t even care.”

2. Contempt. When your complaints involve sneering, sarcasm, or cynicism, you’ve lapsed into contempt. For example, “So why is the door unlocked this time? Did you forget yet again? Is it REALLY that hard for you?” Contempt is the most damaging of the Four Horseman and is usually the result of years of resentments building up.

3. Defensiveness. Defensiveness is, well, going on the defense and trying to make excuses for your behavior instead of acknowledging what your partner has complained about. Going on the defense makes some sense if you feel attacked, but it doesn’t solve anything.

4. Stonewalling. When there’s too much of 1-3 above, one partner (often the dude) will begin tuning out (i.e. they’ll just quit talking or responding). Years ago, I got a hotel room in Vegas and my husband hadn’t arrived yet. In the room next door, a couple argued in a foreign language; she went on and on and on and ON in a tone that made it clear she was angry, and he literally did not say a single word, only letting out a couple of annoyed grunts that clearly showed he was tuning her out. (It was almost funny, actually).

So, which one (or more) of these did you recognize? Which are you prone to, and which are your partners of former partners prone to? How about your parents? Did you grow up watching your parents let the Four Horsemen gallop into their marriage? I know I did, BIG TIME.

One point: any healthy couple can resort to the Four Horseman now and again. But when the Horsemen are regular visitors, or worse, comfortably installed in the home… that isn’t good.

Interestingly, Gottman has observed gender differences in dealing with the Four Horsemen. Everyone is unique, of course, but women are more likely to bring up difficult issues (e.g. complaints or criticism) and men are more likely to combat any perceived attack with either contempt or with defensiveness and stonewalling. He cites research showing that men are more easily overwhelmed by marital conflict than women are. He calls this overwhelm “flooding.” I admit I’ve both flooded and been flooded.

What say you? I’d love to hear your experiences with the Four Horsemen.



John Gottman’s Books

Christie’s Books

Communication archive