After a long, trying day at home with the kids, you are looking forward to your spouse walking through the door and providing a little respite. But when they arrive, instead of helping out, your partner plops down on the couch to play games on a smartphone. Frustrated, an argument ensues.
Does this sound familiar? Don’t worry, this doesn’t automatically mean your marriage is failing and divorce is looming on your horizon. Occasional conflicts are completely normal. Even the most successful relationships experience discord. It’s what happens next which really matters. The way a disagreement is managed determines if a relationship is happy and thriving or miserable and dying.
There are four behaviors during arguments which show your marriage is heading towards failure: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Dr. John Gottman calls these negative communication patters the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” because—unchecked—they’ll lead to the nearly inevitable end of your relationship. In fact, he can predict relationship failure with over 90% accuracy if these behaviors aren’t changed. So, what do these four catastrophic habits actually look like in a marriage? What can be done about fixing and avoiding them?
Contempt is a toxic combination of anger and resentment. If its insidious negativity is allowed to bloom between two married people, it is the greatest predictor of the looming failure of their relationship. (Lisitsa, 2013) It is an expression of superiority manifesting as sarcasm, cynicism, name calling, eye rolling, sneering, and mockery. Rather than seeing your spouse as your partner or equal, you see them as beneath you.
“You’re tired?! I’ve been here all day taking care of the kids and running the house. All you do when you come home from work is flop down on the couch and play those idiotic games on your phone. I don’t have time to deal with another child.”
The obvious antidote to contempt is to treat one another with respect and build a culture of appreciation within the relationship. Even if obvious, the difficulty is often in the doing. However, it needn’t take huge efforts to affect lasting change. Do small things often. Express appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner regularly in order to create a positive perspective in your relationship, acting as a buffer for negative feelings. (Lisitsa, 2018)
“I can tell you had a long day and that you could use some time to decompress. I really appreciate how hard you work for us, and want you to have the time you need. It’s been a long day around here as well, and I could really use some help. Will you play with the kids after you finish your games?”
Criticism attacks the character of the recipient instead of focusing on a specific behavior. Often, criticism builds over time. In order to avoid conflict, small annoyances are bottled up, only to come spewing out as something worse later. These repressed feelings explain why absolutes—words like always and never—tend to crop up in criticism. Since the issues weren’t dealt with in the moment, they compound, making it feel as though they happen consistently.
“You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. You always say you’re too tired to help out. Why don’t you care about what we need?”
It’s important to talk about the things in our relationships that are making us unhappy. However, these discussions must be direct and positive. The best antidote to criticism is to talk about your feelings using “I” statements.
“I feel frustrated because it seems like your phone is taking priority. I would appreciate having help with the kids when you come home.”
Defensiveness is self-protection through righteous indignation or playing the victim. It is typically a response to criticism. According to Gottman, when we feel unjustly accused, we fish for excuses and play the innocent victim so our spouse will back off. (Lisitsa, 2019) Defensiveness is really just a subversive way of blaming your spouse.
“I wake up early and then work all day. Why can’t you play with the kids?”
The antidote to defensiveness is to take responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict, and express concern for the other’s feelings. Acknowledging you play a role in the issue opens up the situation for problem solving as a team.
“Even though it is not my intention, I can see how playing on my phone is frustrating for you and comes across as me not caring. I need time to decompress after work, but I’ll try to be better at doing that before coming in the door or waiting until I know the family’s needs are met. Would either of those options help you feel my happiness to be home?”
Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the conversation, shuts down, and stops responding without resolving anything. It is usually a response to contempt. Instead of facing the problems with their spouse, those who stonewall make evasive actions like turning away, ignoring, acting busy, or finding distractions.
Remember how in our childhood we were taught to stop, drop, and roll if we caught fire? That same mantra applies here. The antidote to stonewalling is to:
- stop the conversation for at least 20 minutes,
- drop your walls and flooded emotions, then
- roll on with the discussion once you are ready.
“I’m feeling too upset to keep talking about this and need a break. Can we please pause and come back to it in a bit? It will be easier to work through this after I’ve calmed down.”
Antidotes Create Success
Conflict in marriage is normal and even functional. Disagreements provide opportunities for growth and understanding when approached with respect, self-reflection, acknowledged shared responsibility, and self-regulation. Perfection is the goal, but not the expectation. Anyone can fall into the four negative communication patterns during arguments. That’s okay, if they are only temporary and outweighed by positive patterns. What matters is that you are cognizant of emotions and reactions in an argument. If you find yourself reverting to those poisonous behaviors, apply the antidotes. It’s those proactive steps by couples who practice and learn to manage problems in a healthy way which lead to permanently successful and resilient relationships.
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Lisitsa, E. (2013, May 13). The Four Horsemen: Contempt. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-contempt/
Lisitsa, E. (2018, May 9). The Four Horsemen: The Antidotes. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-the-antidotes/
Lisitsa, E. (2019, February 5). The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/
I am so grateful you’re sharing this! So helpful.
Thank you for the kind words, Emily! I’m so glad you found it helpful.