Relationships can be difficult, and none quite so much as that of the marital relationship. Many studies have been done on the high divorce rate that only seems to climb steadily higher over the years. In many cases, entering into a long-term, committed relationship seems almost as big a gamble as investing in high-risk stocks on the stock market! In fact, some people perceive long-term marital relationships as too risky, thus remaining single or in a semi-committed or ambiguously defined dating relationship which unfortunately can result in just as much heartbreak as divorcing married couples.

A world-renowned researcher and couple therapist, Dr. John Gottman, has studied couple relationships in this “love lab” at the University of Washington for close to four decades. Over the course of his study, Dr. Gottman found that there were many similarities in the way couples engaged in a conflict that determined whether the couple was a “relationship disaster” or a “relationships master”. He discovered that there were four specific communication patterns found in conflict cycles that were particularly corrosive to couple relationships. They were so damaging, he named them the “four horsemen of the marital apocalypse”. By observing the prevalence of these behavior patterns, he could predict divorce with 94% accuracy after watching a new couple interact for only fifteen minutes! The four horseman are as follows: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. When these four horsemen show up with regularity, you can bet that the metaphoric “apocalypse” is right around the corner. Left unchecked and unaddressed, these four horsemen can doom any marital relationship.

Fortunately, there are antidotes to the horsemen. When in a conflict cycle, couples can take solid, concrete steps to keep the discourse from bubbling into disaster by adhering to some simple steps. Instead of criticizing one’s partner, which is done through attacking the person instead of the issue, try complaining instead. A complaint tends to focus on a specific behavior or scenario instead of drawing the personhood or character of one’s significant other into the conversation. Talking about one’s feelings using “I” statements can help to express a disagreement in a more positive light. An example of criticism would be a partner saying “You always talk about yourself! You are so selfish!” The antidote, would be to say instead, “I’m feeling left out,” or “Can we please talk about my day?”

Defensiveness, the second horseman, is a self-protection strategy that can take the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood so that one can ward off a perceived attack. When one feels as though they are being criticized, turning the blame onto the other person may be used as a tactic. But defensiveness does not solve the problem, and in fact, may escalate the situation further. As an example, a defensive person may say, “It’s not my fault! It’s your fault!” Instead, take responsibility for one’s own actions by saying, “Well, part of this is my problem”. It takes two to tango, and conflicts are no different.

Of the four horsemen, contempt is the most catastrophic to marriages; it is the single greatest predictor of divorce. A person engaging in contempt towards their partner takes a position of superiority. An example of contempt would be a person stating, “You’re an idiot” or “Well, you know you’re not good at this.” Sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, or hostile humor are all ways a partner may show contempt in a conflict cycle. Instead of belittling one’s partner, build a culture of appreciation by stating things like, “I’m proud of the way you handled that” or “I would have never thought of doing it that way!”

Finally, stonewalling happens when an individual withdraws from the interaction. Instead of engaging in the conflict, the individual shuts-down emotionally and psychologically. The antidote to this would be finding ways to self-soothe and calm down the body. One can also inform a partner that they may need a few minutes to de-escalate before resuming the conflict discussion. This is not running away from the conflict but rather giving each partner some space to calm down from the flood of emotions that they may be experiencing. Sometimes, a person just needs a break and this can be a powerful relationship honoring strategy.

Nothing seems more high stakes than when one is engulfed in a conflict with one’s significant other, which is why martial conflicts can be so devastating to those involved. Fortunately, a marriage does not have to fall prey to the four horsemen. Dr. Gottman’s research has shown that marital satisfaction can increase when the antidotes to the four horsemen are used to de-escalate a conflict and allow for couples to respond instead of reacting when conflicts become heated.

Angel Dalton, Counseling Intern at the Cognitive Behavior Institute