Marriage can be difficult to maintain over the long term. While every couple encounters challenges, research has identified four specific negative patterns that strongly predict whether a marriage will end in divorce. Understanding these damaging interactions and learning to avoid them is key for couples who want their relationship to last.
The Four Horsemen of the Divorce Apocalypse
In their research on marriage, Dr. John Gottman and his colleagues identified four toxic communication styles that can seriously undermine a relationship. They called these destructive patterns “The Four Horsemen of the Divorce Apocalypse” because of their power to predict the end of a marriage.
The four negative patterns are:
Couples don’t need to exhibit all four to be at high risk for divorce. Even one or two of these communication styles can damage the trust and respect in a marriage and push it toward failure. However, the more a couple engages in these patterns, the more likely their relationship will end.
Criticism is more than just complaining about something your partner does that bothers you. It’s attacking their very character – rather than a specific behavior – usually with blame and accusation. For example:
- “You’re so lazy. You never help out around here.”
- “You’re so disorganized. You lose your keys every day.”
- “You’re so selfish. You only think of yourself.”
Criticism like this directly attacks your partner’s personality and implies they can’t or won’t change. It focuses on their flaws as inherent, global traits rather than specific actions they can work to improve.
Why Criticism is Destructive
There are several reasons why criticism tends to damage relationships:
- Puts the partner on the defensive, making them less likely to listen
- Focuses on blame and negatives rather than solutions
- Hurts the partner’s self-esteem
- Creates an environment of anger and contempt
Being on the receiving end of criticism also trains your brain for conflict rather than safety with your partner. In time, criticism can chip away at the sense of mutual respect, trust, and caring in the relationship.
Contempt takes criticism to the next level by adding insult onto injury. It’s criticism bolstered by hostility, disgust, sarcasm, name-calling, eye rolling, sneering, mockery and other displays of disrespect.
- “You’re acting like an idiot. Only an idiot would spend that much.”
- “Why do I even bother talking to you? You never listen anyway.”
- “That idea is so stupid. Don’t be ridiculous.”
Why Contempt is Destructive
Contempt demonstrates total disrespect for your partner. Some key reasons it jeopardizes relationships include:
- Signals disgust and superiority over your partner
- Shames and humiliates your partner
- Creates an extremely hostile emotional climate
- Is correlated with violence and physical abuse
Regular contempt in a relationship makes it nearly impossible to sustain emotional or physical intimacy. It sanctions hostility and meanness as the normal communication tone between partners.
Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of excuses, denial of responsibility, evasion of issues, or in some cases, outright attack in response to criticism or a request for change from your partner.
It typically sounds like:
- “It’s not my fault we’re late. You took too long getting ready.”
- “I don’t have time to do the dishes. I’m too busy with work and the kids.”
- “Well you didn’t support me when I needed it last week, so I don’t care about your problems right now.”
Why Defensiveness is Destructive
Defensiveness damages relationships in several key ways:
- Avoids responsibility and accountability
- Escalates conflict rather than resolves issues
- Leads to partners feeling alone, unsupported, and unheard
- Creates an environment where nothing gets solved
On its own, defensiveness prevents partners from addressing problems in a way that brings them closer together. Combined with criticism and contempt, it can rapidly accelerate the breakdown of trust and happiness in the relationship.
Stonewalling occurs when one partner shuts down completely in the middle of an argument. It may include:
- Total silence/refusal to speak
- Avoiding eye contact and physical proximity
- Leaving the room or house during an argument
- Ignoring attempts by the partner to continue interaction
It’s a strategy to withdraw from the entire conflict situation. Some stonewallers may even fall asleep or leave the home during arguments.
Why Stonewalling is Destructive
Stonewalling harms relationships in several ways:
- Leaves the partner alone in dealing with the argument
- Triggers feelings of isolation, insignificance, and disconnection
- Halts any progress toward conflict resolution
- Abandons the emotional needs of the partner
Over time, repeated stonewalling during conflict leads the stonewaller’s partner to feel increasingly neglected, disregarded, and disrespected. The emotional disconnect typically damages sexual and relationship satisfaction as well.
The Cascade Effect
Gottman found these four negative behaviors tend to cascade together in distressed marriages. Often contempt leads to defensiveness from the partner, which leads to stonewalling. This cycle rapidly degrades communication between partners.
The more the horsemen are present, the more likely it is that negative thoughts, failed repairs, and emotional disengagement will also plague the marriage. Eventually the cumulative damage leads couples to lose faith in each other and terminate the marriage.
Using Therapy to Overcome The Four Horsemen
If you recognize one or more of The Four Horsemen as issues in your marriage, don’t despair. Seeking professional help can equip you and your partner with healthy communication skills to overcome these destructive patterns.
In particular, couples counseling provides tools to do the following:
- Express complaints as specific, solvable issues rather than global personal attacks
- Reduce defensiveness and accept responsibility for change
- Replace contempt and stonewalling with emotional engagement and self-soothing
- Develop empathy and validate each other’s perspectives
- Discuss problems as a team versus opponents
Learning these techniques with guidance from a therapist creates new interaction patterns that foster intimacy, closeness, and conflict resolution. Over time, they allow couples to avoid situations where the four horsemen take over.
For couples exhibiting strong criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, it’s important to start counseling before irreparable damage is done. The earlier unhealthy patterns are identified and interrupted, the more likely the marriage can be saved.
Using the Sound Relationship House Theory
In addition to Gottman’s four horsemen concept, therapists may employ the Sound Relationship House theory to help couples change negative dynamics. This theory states that certain communication approaches build a solid “house” for a marriage, while others weaken the foundation.
The components of a sound relationship house include:
- Build Love Maps – Understand your partner’s world, needs, worries
- Share Fondness and Admiration – Express appreciation and respect
- Turn Towards Each Other – Show interest in what your partner shares
- Manage Conflict – Fight fair, without contempt or stonewalling
- Create Shared Meaning – Build a sense of purpose and meaning together
Therapists help couples strengthen these components by learning new skills like:
- Actively listening without judging
- Expressing emotional needs and desires
- Engaging in positive everyday interactions
- Managing triggers and taking breaks when needed
- Compromising and finding win-win solutions
Mastering these relationship abilities provides tools to avoid the four horsemen and handle conflict in a healthy way.
Use of Speaker-Listener Technique
Many therapists also employ the Speaker-Listener technique to help couples communicate effectively without falling into negative patterns. This structured technique works as follows:
- One partner speaks about their thoughts and feelings on an issue while the other listens without interrupting.
- The listening partner summarizes back what they heard and reflects the emotions they sensed.
- The speaker confirms if their partner understood correctly.
- The partners switch roles so both get to speak and listen.
This technique helps couples avoid destructive responses like contempt and defensiveness. It encourages listening, understanding, and validating your partner’s experience – even during conflict. With practice, it provides a framework to communicate in a healthy and productive way.
Prevention is Key
Therapy works best when couples seek help early before negative patterns become entrenched habits. Research shows even small changes in communication approaches can yield big improvements in relationship satisfaction. Investing a little time to learn better skills prevents contempt, criticism and other horsemen from overriding all future discussions.
Many couples wait until extensive damage is done before pursuing counseling. At that point, therapy becomes more intensive and challenging. However, even long-term ingrained horsemen can be dismantled through consistent practice of new techniques. The key is that both partners must commit to identifying their destructive habits and replacing them with positive interaction styles.
The Four Horsemen – criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling – are hazardous communication patterns that strongly predict divorce. Research shows that even one horseman can erode the foundations of trust, caring and respect in a marriage. Allowing multiple horsemen to run rampant almost guarantees relationship failure.
The good news is counseling provides effective techniques to stop the four horsemen before they destroy a marriage. Learning positive communication skills allows couples to avoid and defuse situations where criticism escalates into contempt and stonewalling. Committing to identify and change toxic habits can save even deeply troubled relationships.
By recognizing your own damaging patterns and getting professional help, you and your partner can sidestep the horsemen’s path of destruction. Your shared commitment can get your marriage back on track to health and happiness.