The ‘four horsemen’ of relationship breakdown

American couple therapist John Gottman has been researching for many years the reasons why relationships fail.

He has identified four important reasons, which he names the Four Horsemen. These are:

  • Criticism – which is often expressed by saying ‘you always…’ or ‘you never…’
  • Contempt – insulting or putting someone down in a way that shows you think they are inferior.
  • Defenstiveness – not taking responsibility for your behaviour and instead criticizing the other or finding excuses.
  • Stonewalling – refusing to talk about something or withdrawing from the relationship to avoid conflict. In reality, the partner who stonewalls is withdrawing as a means of punishing the other because they are communicating separation and disapproval.

In gender terms, women are more likely to criticize and men to stonewall. So, a woman may crticise her partner, who then stonewalls by ignoring her comments or withdrawing and this makes the woman angrier and so she criticizes even more.

Of these four behaviours, the most important in determining whether a relationship will survive or not is contempt. Where there is contempt expressed by one or both partners there is far less chance of them staying together.

It’s important to realise that contempt does not just mean insulting the other person but can also include sarcastic comments or even rolling your eyes to other people when your partner says something you don’t like.

The reason contempt is so poisonous to a relationship is because it is not just criticizing the other person, it is putting yourself in a superior position. It is a rejection of the other person.

Criticism vs complaint

It is better to complain, rather than criticize. By complain, I mean expressing your feeling, such as annoyance or hurt, about a specific behaviour of your partner.

Criticism is often more generalised and blaming. It often includes phrases like ‘you always…’ ‘you never…’ ‘you’re the sort of person who…’. It is hard for someone to respond constructively to this kind of criticism and they are more likely to become defensive.

A complaint would be: ‘When you forgot to get me a present for our anniversary I felt hurt and angry.’ A criticism would be: ‘You never show your appreciation for me – you just don’t care.’

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