The Gottman Institute, (of relationship researchers Drs. John and Julie Gottman) recently published an article about Gottman’s four marital horsemen, which they named to be: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. So what does that mean and what can I do to stop them from sabotaging my relationship?
If you’re not familiar with what the four horsemen are, the reference comes from the book of Revelation in the Bible. The four horsemen of the apocalypse appear in end times and represent different hardships that will occur.
The first horseman comes on a white horse and is presumed to be the antichrist, or the figure that many will assume is Jesus coming back. The second horseman comes on a red horse and brings with it bloodshed and war. The third horseman rides a black horse and carries scales to represent balance. Finally, the fourth horseman is on a pale horse and identifies as death.
Basically, these characters represent (either metaphorically or literally) the end of the world. In this circumstance, they represent the end of a relationship if you allow these marital horsemen to control your relationship.
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We’ve all done it maybe one too many times. We see something we don’t like in our partner and we comment. While there is always room for growth in relationships, there is a difference between constructive criticism and simply criticizing to criticize. The Gottman Institute points out that voicing a complaint and offering critique are about specific issues, while criticizing is often about your partner’s character.
Criticism often is built up. You might catch yourself making mental notes of how many times your partner does something that annoys you, but you don’t tell them that it sets you off.
Usually, you can catch yourself criticizing if you’re claiming more of a blanket statement. Words like “always” or “never” are often used when you criticize someone. For example, if your partner doesn’t clean up after themselves, you might say, “You’re always so sloppy!” Not only is that a blanket statement that isn’t too backed up with multiple examples but it also then labels them as something negative in your mind. The Gottman Institute suggests remedying criticizing remarks with “I statements,” so instead of saying, “You’re so sloppy!” maybe say, “I would appreciate it if you would clean up.” That way, you can voice your wants and needs without negatively labeling your partner.
Understand that you’re allowed to ask your partner to change something they’re doing if it’s annoying or hurting you. You want your relationship to be healthy and able to grow, and it can’t do that if you’re bottling up your wishes. But it also cannot grow if you’re tearing your partner down.
Treating your partner with contempt is a step beyond criticizing them. Contemptuous behaviors include eye-rolling, name-calling, sarcasm, and just being mean to them. When you approach a situation from a contemptuous point of view, you are seeing yourself as superior to your partner instead of treating them with the respect and love they need.
The Gottman Institute says contempt is the ‘greatest predictor of relationship failure’ and the most harmful one, too. If you live in a state where you treat your partner with contempt, you may also inflict physical damage on them. Studies show that contemptuous relationships lead to real illnesses.
The way to combat contemptuous statements is to treat your partner with respect and show you value them through your words. When you start to think of your partner in a negative way, look for the positive aspects of them and verbally express your admiration for those aspects instead. You can also voice what you don’t like or what is making you begin to feel contempt and you can both start to work towards healing from that.
One way to build admiration with your partner is to start small and look back on the good times that you have experienced with them. Find the positive trends and the things they have done to make you feel loved and thank them for that.
Often, when you’re on the other side of criticism, you will begin to get defensive — it’s natural! But defensiveness can lead to you blaming your partner or making yet another argument. Often, people will also play the victim when they become defensive, and that makes the problem even worse. Defensiveness can make you feel like you’re an island and fighting against your partner, when you should be working with your partner.
The problem with presenting an exterior of defensiveness is that it almost never solves any problem or argument. If you react to your partner in a defensive posture and blame shift, then they might feel as though their complaint or request of you has gone unheard. Often, defensiveness is a knee-jerk reaction, meaning you present a defensive statement before you fully listen to what the other person is saying.
Instead of presenting a defensive statement that might even shift the blame onto your partner, understand the truth in what they’re saying and the vulnerability it took for them to voice their opinions and take responsibility for any wrongs.
This is when you completely shut down and shut off. Stonewalling is another isolating experience when you seemingly pit yourself against your partner. You are now alone and no one can break into your shell. While this is a defense mechanism, it neither defends nor helps you, but cuts you off from any help that you can get from your loved one.
Similar to defense, stonewalling does not allow you to hear any constructive criticism or change in any positive ways, but instead, you simply shut down.
Stonewalling does not just happen but is usually built up after a while of dealing with any or all of the other three horsemen. If your partner is stonewalling you, understand that they are ‘psychologically flooded’ and most likely cannot take any more critique at this time, no matter how important it might be.
The Gottman Institute suggests taking a break when you feel you are about to stonewall your partner. Suggest about 20 minutes for you to collect your thoughts, realize that you are not in this alone, and understand the truth that your partner is trying to share with you.
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While everyone wants to grow in their relationships, often growth will take place at a slow and nurturing pace. Gottman’s four marital horsemen happen often and most likely within every long-term relationship, and that’s okay. Being in a loving and healthy relationship isn’t about being perfect, it’s about growing and learning how to deal with problems when they come up. Thankfully, the Gottman Institute has made a very clear map to help deal with the problems when they arise.
Have you dealt with any of these horsemen in your marriage? Comment down below what helped you!
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