Couples therapist John Gottman has identified 4 behaviors that are so destructive to relationships that they will almost certainly lead a married couple to divorce.
Due to their ominous nature, he calls them the “4 horsemen of the apocalypse” and because of their destructive nature, they must be stopped at all cost.
Although we almost inevitable end up engaging in these behaviors, it is important to be vigilant about their presence and make conscious efforts to reduce or minimize their impact on your marriage.
Want to know what the four horsemen are? Let’s go through them one at a time:
Couples who divorce often have an unfavorable ratio between complaints and appreciations. John Gottman has argued that about 2/3 issues that married couples fight about have to do with personality differences that are ultimately unresolvable. In strong marriages, couples find ways to develop a greater appreciation and understanding of these differences. They realize that we don’t marry a partner simply to be with a carbon copy of ourselves. In married couples who end up divorcing, however, differences instead turn into annoyances, and annoyances into fights. Instead of asking for constructive changes from one’s partner, or taking the time to understand each partner’s perspective, couples headed for divorce instead engage in a barrage of complaints. In many marriages that are close to the point of divorce, partners often feel that they are always being criticized or are never doing things right. After a while such a marriage becomes tiresome, and each partner begins to retreat in order to self-protect.
When you feel attacked and criticized, you defend. Defensiveness is one of the hallmarks of a failing marriage. Instead of having conversations and being curious about each other, couples who are on their way to a divorce, tend to simply stick to their guns and play the blame game. Instead of listening for their partner’s feeling and showing that they care, they instead focus on telling their partner why their complaint is unreasonable or wrong. Over time, each partner becomes an island onto themselves, focused simply on proving their own point at the expense of their partner. In this kind of atmosphere, each partner ends up feeling not understood and this of course leads to emotional disconnection. When you are at war, you retreat behind a wall and stop making yourself vulnerable and receptive to your partner. With so much effort dedicated to defending, love dwindles, and both partners often end up feeling deprived and unhappy.
Being in an intimate relationship with a partner is not only a source of joy and love. We often also experience intense anger and even hatred. When our partner disappoints us, when we feel afraid of losing them, or when we don’t feel unconditionally cared for, intense anger is often evoked in us. Although the adult part of us realizes that love is never unconditional, the child within often has a fantasy that it is. When our inner child feels deprived, strong feelings can be evoked that can lead us call our partner names and make comments that undercut our partners’ self-esteem. However, it pays to think twice before saying such things. John Gottman found that couples who end up divorcing, tend to have a high rate of contempt and hostility toward each other. Whereas strong marriages are slanted toward interactions that serve to build each other up, couples who end up divorcing oftentimes end up in negative cycles of cutting each other down.
Although some couples think simply ignoring their spouse is a pathway toward peace, fact is, the absence of a response, can be like depriving your partner of oxygen. Researchers on human attachment have found a lack of response a much greater sign of danger than an angry response. For this reason, many couples actually pick fights or provoke their partner into feeling angry or jealous. At least, with this response, they know their partner “sees” them and that they more than likely care. When our partner simply ignores us, it is easy to feel that we don’t even exist. At the level of our “animal” instinct or mammalian brain this often gets interpreted as a danger signal that we are without support and that nobody cares about our existence. Since at our core we are social beings, such absence of love is a threat to our basic survival needs and can send us into panic. In certain partners who had parents who often were absent, any resemblance of this deprivation will evoke fear and anger at their partner for inducing this fear. John Gottman also found that couples who stop acknowledging their partners existence and start to live parallel lives are at the greatest risk for divorce. It is often much easier to restore connection in couples who fight a lot, than it is to restore it, in couples who have simply shut down their emotional response to each other. So the next time you give your spouse the cold shoulder or ignore their bids for connection, know that you are causing harm to your marriage, and try to find at least some way to engage.
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I help couples develop better communication skills and restore emotional connection.