The Four Horseman of the Marital Apocalypse

Part One

When I was in Boulder, Colorado I attended the University with the intent of becoming a relationship counselor. The irony is that while I had all the "right tools" to know how to save a marriage, I still could not save my own.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Interpersonal Communication and I have helped numerous people in their own relationships. I taught them how to fight fair, how to pick battles that matter and how to let the little things go. I even knew about Gottman’s theory on the Four Horseman.

I saw the warning signs. I tried to get him to talk, to admit we were heading down a path that once all four horseman were present, we would not recover. I will share Gottman’s theory with you and I urge you that if you see even one or two of these factors in your marriage, seek help.

The first two Horseman are: criticism and defensiveness.

Criticism: When we complain and criticize our partners we are finding fault, even attacking their character, their behaviors, and point out real or perceived flaws. We do these things to elevate ourselves and our behavior to show why we are more right than they are.

Instead of focusing on the specific behavior(s) that are bothering us we tend to drag out many other issues that have been laid to rest as a way to prove our point. We want to prove that not only were we right then, but how we are justified in the criticism in the here and now.

Criticism is destructive because it devalues our partner as a person and how we see them. It shows a lack of respect in who they are, often bleeding over to what they stand for or believe in.

Women are more likely to rely on this horseman because it is easy to do without realizing it is how we are communicating with our partner. Instead of saying: “I am upset you did not take out the trash.” When this horseman is present we criticize or complain and say something like: “I can’t count on you to do anything.”

Defensiveness: Most people know about body language and even how to read the less than subtle signs, like crossing your arms across your body. This is a defensive stance to “protect” ourselves, an indication of being closed off to what the person is saying.

Adopting a defensive stance in the middle of a conflict may be a natural response, but there are other indicators of being in defense/attack mode. The following are examples of other forms of being on the defense.

Making excuses: Stating external circumstances beyond your control which forced you to behave/act in a certain way. These kinds of excuses may work for a five year old but our partners tend to be less understanding of the: “They made me do it” defense. (This goes hand in hand with the denial of responsibility defense.)

Cross-complaining or disagreeing and then cross-complaining: Meeting your partner’s complaint, or criticism with a complaint of your own, ignoring what your partner is saying. More often than not we as humans are not practicing active listening but this is ten times truer when in the middle of a conflict. We are only partially listening to what the other person is saying because we are too busy mounting our defense in our head.

Yes-butting: This is where you start off agreeing but end up disagreeing. I was the queen of the yes butting. Every time he came at me with an issue I would agree with him but then I would show how his behavior had led to my actions causing him to react which in turn caused me to react again.

I believe that sometimes having the knowledge I have regarding relationships can be helpful and hurtful. He always argued that I over analyzed situations, read too much into them and was too busy coming up with my defense that I was not actively listening to what he was saying. I was hearing his words, but I was not absorbing them.

In all fairness, he probably had a point, however I also believe I deduced he would never take responsibility for his actions and how they affected me or how they might cause me to react. (See right there justification while taking partial blame.)

Repeating: Lastly the repeat defense. When a person is defensive, he or she often experiences a great deal of tension and has difficulty tuning into what is being said. You are so upset and angry that you not listening to what they are saying. This is a natural normal reaction but you have to find a way to listen and truly hear what your partner is saying.

Take a break from the conflict and return when things have calmed down. Collect your thought and return when you know you can not only listen but you can speak clearly on the issues.

Part Two: Where I will discuss the last two Horseman. (coming soon)


Gottman, John M. The Marriage Clinic, NY: WW Norton & Company; 1999.

Canary D., Cody M., & Manusov V. Interpersonal Communication: A Goals-Based Approach, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s; 2003.


Anonymous said...

So that's how you end up giving us these really thoughtful pieces on relationships! Now I see why I've been drawn to your writings. Please don't stop.

Being in a bath full of water and drowning is not the same as seeing someone drowning in a bath. That's one reason we need therapist, psychologists and counselers to help us figure things out.

Too many people think psychology means there is something wrong with you, when it's really just a doctor for your mind. Just like our bodies sometimes have issues that we're unable to solve by ourselves, sometimes our minds have problems that require professional expertise. There is no shame in that. And I don't know why I'm saying that. :)

My ex was the queen of stonewalling. Over the years I forgot a lot of things regarding how life was with her, but these "conversations" where she was completely closed off and silent are something I will never forget, unfortunately.

There is so much you're saying in this piece that ring profoundly with me. One of the biggest thing I have had to learn in my marriage is how to stop thinking in terms of how I feel about her actions and instead in terms of what my feelings about her actions say about me.

It's a tough question to ask oneself: What does that say about me? I'm annoyed about this behavior, I think she should be this way instead... What does that mean in terms of me?

Growing up and becoming proficient at being a couple (what I call Relationship 2.0) involves a lot of that for me. Even on my blog, I often have thoughts, but my blog is not about her, it's about me, so I ask myself constantly, what does this say about me?

The point is, the only person I have control over is myself. Changing someone else is just not an option. Maybe when we're young we think we can change other people, but the truth is, the hardest person to change is ourselves. And withstanding the force of an intense relationship is something we have to learn to do, because life expectancy is getting longer and longer.

100 years ago, people used to vow themselves for 30 years, not we're vowing ourselves for 50-60 years. And now life is all about equality of the sexes, entertainment and self-gratification. In this context, there is no way two people can live together for extented periods of time (15-20, 30 years) without some serious personal growth.

Apologizing is not easy, but accepting blame is central. When you try to defend yourself, you're trying to convince the other person that they are not seeing right. However feelings are feelings, and in relationship 2.0, as a see it, love and feelings are absolute. If your spouse feels one way, there is a reason for it, and this reason is not in their head, like it or not.

I love this stuff. Thank you for writing it. Looking forward to your next piece!

Anonymous said...

I wanted to tell you how much I have enjoyed reading your blogs. I’ve been thinking about how much emotions play into our personal stories.

My desires are so strong for a relationship with someone whom I can be completely open with. I wonder what that would be like? It seems that I get burned when I am open with those I need to be open with...those who should be trustworthy with my words.

Keep telling your stories.

cjn said...

It is interesting to me "The Four Horseman of the Marital Apocalypse"... those very words are so strong. I think that Gottman really used great vocabulary in to name his theory. Because really this is such an important idea.

The warning signs are just that, items to head, to notice, to work on. I don't think any relationship, being sexual, man to wife, friends, parent to child, employee to employer, etc. is free from all of these "horseman".

Since reading your post last week, I started observing. I see them to some degree in every relationship I am involved in. Some in very mild degrees and some much greater.

Fruit Taster was dead on when he said "you end up giving us these really thoughtful pieces on relationships"! That is part of the reason I always come to you first when I am feeling bothered by one of mine.

This piece was a real eye opener! Thanks... lol.