I often think that if fitness buffs spent just 10 percent of their weekly workout time – say, twenty minutes a day – working on their marriage instead of their bodies, they would get three times the health benefits they derive from exercise class or the treadmill. – Dr. John Gottman
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse predict an ailing marriage: Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and Contempt. The worst of these is contempt. – Dr. John Gottman
This last quote makes me think of a Scripture passage. “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13, ESV) If love is most important, and Dr. Gottman’s research shows contempt to be the worst horsemen, maybe the opposite of love is not hatred or apathy, but contempt?
Dr. John Gottman is one of the foremost researchers in the field of marital communication. With staggering accuracy, he can predict if a couple will divorce after watching them fight for just fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes!!! In other words, when he talks about marriage, people listen (and you should too).
In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last, Dr. Gottman discusses what he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Since writing the book, he has reported contempt to be the strongest indicator of a deteriorating marriage. At the beginning of a relationship, the Four Horsemen are off in the distance, lying dormant, but they are there and ready to storm in unless defenses are up.
Have you been in your relationship long? Do you hear hoofbeats coming up the road? Are you and your partner staying vigilant? Work your way through these twenty suggestions and keep those evildoers out of your relationship and future marriage. They are sneaky, so be on guard!
Twenty Thoughts and Suggestions to Keep the Four Horseman Away Forever!
- If you think your relationship cannot fail, think again. If you believe the Four Horsemen will never bother you and your partner, give yourselves a good shake. The fastest way to meet the horsemen is to be unprepared for them. Criminals are less likely to break into protected homes.
- Criticism is the gateway to the other horsemen.
- Be slow to speak. Some of the worst trouble we cause ourselves is when we open our mouths.
- Take stock in yourself. “Am I critical?” If you are feeling brave, ask your partner to gently point out when you are being critical – in the relationship or in general. To avoid feeling overwhelmed, put a time cap on it. “Honey, over the next week, please point out when you notice me being critical.” And when your partner does, just accept it as a data point – do not attempt to defend.
- Learn to discern the difference in a complaint and a criticism. As Dr. Gottman points out, a complaint attacks the situation where a criticism attacks the person. Tone of voice and body language can make a complaint seem like a criticism.
- Constant criticism puts a person’s fears and insecurities on display. “I criticize you because I criticize myself internally all day long.” “I criticize you before you have the chance to criticize me.” “I criticize you because my life is drenched in negativity.”
- Retrain your brain. If you find your initial thoughts tilt towards the negative side, practice immediately dismissing those thoughts and replacing them with five positive thoughts. “Ugh! That sounds like so much trouble.” It is. ~smile~ It is work; but, tearing down old habits and establishing new ones is hard work – but, it is worth it. Along with countering your negative thoughts with positive ones, do some self-reflection and see if you can find out why you are drawn to criticism.
- Combat lies with the truth. Going along with retraining your brain to be positive, retrain yourself to speak truth rather than lies. So much self-criticism (and outward criticism) comes from believing lies we tell about ourselves (and others). Start confronting your lies. Instead of, “I am worthless because I am not beautiful,” tell yourself (out loud, every day until you believe it), “Those who love me find me attractive, and my worth is based on what God thinks of me.” This statement is not self-help nonsense. This person is not trying to boost her self-esteem by repeating happy lies. She is telling herself the truth until she believes it.
- Time out is a couple’s best friend. You may have hated time out as a child; but, as an adult, it might just save your relationship. Time out cuts stonewalling off at the pass. If you are at liberty to say, “I am feeling overwhelmed. I need ten minutes to collect myself!” then you can avoid blowing up and completely shutting down. Stonewalling is extremely hurtful as it cuts the other person out of your life until you decide to reestablish communication. Done enough, the ignored party is likely to quit caring and give up on the relationship.
- If you must be critical, be constructively critical. Do so with forethought and planning. Make it a rare occurrence. Use the sandwich method (positive – helpful criticism – another positive). Any good marriage can expect some level of constructive criticism. When Eric gives me suggestions on how to change areas of my life, I do not enjoy hearing them. However, after mulling over his comments, I sometimes appreciate the opportunity to improve. When suggestions are made in love, and in private, they are usually easier to digest.
- Notice what crosses your mind in moments of anger. Do thoughts such as “Go to Hell!” or “Just shut up, idiot” cross your mind when you feel attacked or annoyed by your partner? Do you fight urges to throw up disrespectful gestures behind his or her back? Do you look at him or her and think, “Man, I would love to just punch you in the face right now”? If such thoughts swim around in your mind consistently, there certainly is contempt brewing in your heart.
- Notice what comes out of your mouth, also. “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (John 6:45, ESV) Contempt is the most concerning of the Four Horsemen. Some verbal examples he cites are insults, name-calling, hostile humor, and mockery. And if it does not come out of your mouth, it is bound to come out of your eyes and body – eye rolling, glares, turning away in disgust, sticking your hand in his or her face, etc.
- Get to the root of your contempt. If you are experiencing contempt for your partner, these emotions grew over time. You did not wake up one day and decide to be contemptuous towards your significant other or spouse. It started as a small, bitter seed and grew (and often nurtured). Until you uproot the plant, contempt will keep growing in your heart. What is in your heart will eventually come out of your mouth.
- Defensiveness is the natural reaction to feeling attacked. For example, when I yelled, “You lost him!” at Eric when our nephew went missing (for two minutes), he reacted defensively. He was caught off guard and hit in the face with a bitter (and unjust) accusation. The natural response to blame is defense. Instead, a calm question such as, “Where is Tyler?” does not light a fire in the belly like an accusation does (and did). When we refuse to react defensively (which takes practice and self-control), we can calmly deescalate the situation and start working towards a solution.
- Defensiveness does not work. It does not help. It does not accomplish the desired result (unless your only desire is to be right). You may feel powerful in the moment after throwing down a counterattack, but in the end the problem is still there; and, since communication lines are now damaged, the solution feels even further out of reach.
- Who cares if you are proven right if you and your partner are screaming at each other? Being right comes at a price. How important is it to you?
- Do not let shutting down become your default setting. Without communication, relationships cannot sustain emotional intimacy. Take some time to regroup, but always come back to the conversation. “I am overwhelmed right now. I am going for a walk. I’ll be back to talk with you on the couch in fifteen minutes.”
- Stonewalling is emotional abandonment. Before one or both partners jump the marriage ship, emotional abandonment is usually in place. If in the heat of battle, we need a quick break from our partners, by all means, we should take one; but, we should alwaysestablish a promise of return. The key difference between stonewalling and cooling down is the follow-up. Stonewalling creates a chasm between couples; whereas, cooling down neutralizes the environment so couples can work through their problems more effectively and efficiently.
- Are you able to say, “I am my biggest marriage problem” (or, “I am my biggest relationship problem”)? The first time I heard this quote was in Sunday School. We were going through a video series called What Did You Expect by Dr. Paul Tripp (excellent series, by the way), and he encouraged us all to say, “I am my biggest marriage problem.” It stuck in my throat for two weeks. My mouth did not want to say the words because my heart did not believe it. However, once I did say the sentence, it felt somewhat freeing because then I had something I could control. I can work on myself, but I cannot make Eric do anything. Being able to admit your shortcomings is helpful in fighting against the Four Horsemen.
- Read Dr. Gottman’s Book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last. Take the quizzes in the book and discuss with your partner. As a practice, reread it and retake the quizzes every five years.
So, what do you think? Are you and your significant other keeping the fences up and the alarm set? The Horsemen will visit you. No matter how much you keep your guard up, they will try to invade the property of your relationship. Critical statements will come from your mouth when you are tired or frustrated. Sometimes you will get defensive. Keep your eyes open for footholds (e.g., discussing situations too late at night, not showing enough appreciation to each other, letting arguments linger without resolution, etc.) and when you notice any of the Four Horsemen making an appearance, call it out and talk with your partner about how to keep them away.
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27, ESV)
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (I Peter 5:8, ESV)
Have you received a visit from the Four Horsemen in this relationship or any former relationships?