Since my own separation and divorce, it has always astounded me when people who have suffered a marriage breakdown have not been able to see themselves as part of the problem. It almost always takes two people to fail at marriage, though one may initiate the separation or divorce, and the other may be blindsided. I believe it would be a rare case that only one party was guilty of destroying a marriage—though in situations of aberrant abuse, it is usually one person that destroys the marriage. Many more marriages fail for neglect or for a ‘silent’ abuse in the emotional realm.
And when we consider this important emotional realm in marriage, we are helped in identifying and attending to the Four Horsemen of Relationship Apocalypse.
There are four clearly destructive forces involved in marriage: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. These four factors, identified by John Gottman, are the watch points for our marriages and in our relationships generally.
The Four Horsemen and Their Antidotes
The first horseman of relationship apocalypse is criticism. There is the harsh tinge of overt personal attack in criticism. It would be better to complain by using the “when you/I felt/I would rather you … from now on” formula. At least by complaining we separate our partner from the source of the problem. We should argue about the issue and not personalise the issue by attacking the person.
The second horseman is defensiveness, which is one partner or both refusing to take personal responsibility for issues in their marriage. It would be better for both partners to accept responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and their actions. When both partners are mature enough to own their thoughts, feelings, words, and actions much more marital satisfaction is experienced.
The third horseman is contempt, and there is hardly a more vociferous and despicable barb against the relationship. We see contempt through insults, hostile humour, and name-calling. Contempt is countered by a culture within the marriage of appreciation. It is a weird irony that those most engaging in contempt are transferring their inner feelings of self-contempt onto their partners. When we appreciate ourselves within, we appreciate others more.
The fourth horseman is stonewalling. Nothing would be so stifling to a marriage than the deliberate blocking of progress within conflict. Would anything infuriate the other partner as much? This sort of passive-aggressiveness needs to be called for what it is. Perpetrators of stonewalling need to become aware that they do it, when they do it, and most importantly why they do it.
Criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling are the Four Horsemen of Relationship Apocalypse. It would be better to complain than criticise, accept personal responsibility than defend ourselves, appreciate the good and not insult our partners, and to commit to addressing our partners’ frustrations rather than actively frustrate them.
© 2012 S. J. Wickham.
General Reference: John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed and Fail (1994).