Peter’s couple therapy blog

How Gottman predicts separation/divorce 2


A harsh startup sounds the warning bell that the couple may be having serious difficulty. As the discussion unfolds, Gottman continues to look out for particular types of negative interactions. Certain kinds of negativity, if allowed to run rampant, are so lethal to a relationship that Gottman calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Usually these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Horseman 1: Criticism. You will always have some complaints about the person you live with. But there’s a world of difference between a complaint and a criticism.

A complaint only addresses the specific action at which your spouse failed. A criticism is more global — it adds on some negative words about your mate’s character or personality.

“I’m really angry that you didn’t sweep the kitchen floor last night. We agreed that we’d take turns doing it” is a complaint — it focuses on a specific behaviour.

“Why are you so forgetful? I hate having to always sweep the kitchen floor when it’s your turn. You just don’t care” is a criticism.
Criticism throws in blame and general character assassination. To turn a complaint into a criticism, add the line: “What is wrong with you?”

Usually a harsh startup comes in the guise of criticism.
Complaint. There’s no gas in the car. Why didn’t you fill it up like you said you would?
Criticism. Why can’t you ever remember anything? I told you a thousand times to fill up the tank, and you didn’t. (Criticism. She’s implying the problem is his fault. Even if it is, blaming him will only make it worse.)

The first horseman is very common in relationships. If you find that you and your spouse are critical of each other, don’t assume you’re headed for divorce court. The problem with criticism is that when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen.

Horseman 2: Contempt. Sarcasm and cynicism are types of contempt. So are name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humour. In whatever form, contempt — the worst of the four horsemen — is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict rather than to reconciliation.

Often a person’s main purpose is to demean her or his spouse. Couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses (colds, flu, and so on) than other people.

Contempt is fuelled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner. You’re more likely to have such thoughts if your differences are not resolved. As disagreeing persists, complaints turn into global criticisms, which produces more and more disgusted feelings and thoughts, and finally you are fed up with your spouse, a change that will affect what you say when you argue.

Belligerence is just as deadly to a relationship. It is a form of aggressive anger because it contains a threat or provocation.

Horseman 3: Defensiveness. When conversations become so negative, critical, and attacking, it should come as no surprise that you will defend yourself.

Although this is understandable, research shows that this approach rarely has the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner.

You’re saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so deadly.

Criticism, Contempt, and Defensiveness don’t always gallop into a home in strict order. They function more like a relay match — handing the baton off to each other over and over again, if the couple can’t put a stop to it. The more defensive one becomes, the more the other attacks in response. Nothing gets resolved, thanks to the prevalence of criticism, contempt, and defensiveness.

Much of these exchanges are communicated subtly (and not so subtly) through body language and sounds.

Horseman 4: Stonewalling. In marriages where discussions begin with a harsh startup, where criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, which leads to more contempt and more defensiveness, eventually one partner tunes out. So enters the fourth horseman.

Think of the husband who comes home from work, gets met with a barrage of criticism from his wife, and hides behind the newspaper. The less responsive he is, the more she yells. Eventually he gets up and leaves the room. Rather than confronting his wife, he disengages. By turning away from her, he is avoiding a fight, but he is also avoiding his marriage. He has become a stonewaller.

Although both husbands and wives can be stonewallers, this behaviour. is far more common among men.

During a typical conversation between two people, the listener gives all kinds of cues to the speaker that he’s paying attention. He may use eye contact, nod his head, say something like “Yeah” or “Uh-huh.”

A stonewaller doesn’t give you this sort of casual feedback. He tends to look away or down without uttering a sound. He sits like an impassive stone wall. The stonewaller acts as though he couldn’t care less about what you’re saying, if he even hears it.

Stonewalling usually arrives later in the course of a marriage than the other three horsemen. That’s why it’s less common among newlywed husbands than among couples who have been in a negative spiral for a while. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out.”

This and the following blog posts about predicting separation are quoted from

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