Having a happy, supportive romantic relationship is an important source of life satisfaction for most people. However, relationships can also be hard work, and are often a source of frustration and distress. It is no wonder then that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. But is it possible to know what predicts divorce?
Professor John Gottman at the University of Washington was one of the first psychologists who did so successfully. In several research studies, Gottman and his colleagues observed newlywed couples interacting with each other and followed them up for several years, aiming to find interaction patterns that could predict which couples would stay married and which ones would get divorced within 5-10 years.
Among the many predictors of divorce he identified, one of the best known is what Gottman called “The Four Horsemen”, referring to the biblical “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” bringing destruction. Gottman’s “Four Horsemen” describe four behaviours or emotional reactions during couple conflict. They build on one another and compound each other’s negative effects, leading to a cascade of increasingly hostile interactions and emotional withdrawal from the relationship.
So what are Gottman’s Four Horsemen?
The cascade starts with criticism. It is important to differentiate criticism from a legitimate complaint. In successful relationships, a complaint is expressed in a tactful, respectful way that concentrates on the actual behaviour to be discussed. Criticism, as one of the “Horsemen”, can be identified by harsh, broad statements that attack the whole person. It often starts with “you always…” or “you never…” or “you are so … (selfish, careless, cold, etc)“. Frequent criticism and attacks of this kind can then lead to the appearance of the next “Horseman”: defensiveness.
Defensiveness is a common response to criticism. It is not pleasant (and usually not fair) to be attacked in such harsh, broad terms. A partner may therefore respond by denying responsibility or even shifting blame from themselves and counterattacking their partner. Of course, this then can cause their partner to feel that their concerns are not taken seriously, so they intensify their criticism. A cascade of attacks and counterattacks follows, with each partner feeling increasingly frustrated and unsupported.
Repeated criticism of one another and responding to this criticism with defensiveness (such as shifting blame or countercriticism) can lead to a sense of contempt. At this phase of the interaction, a lack of respect is expressed by sarcastic statements about the partner, name calling, eye rolling, mockery, and hostile humour. Gottman suggests that contempt is the most destructive of “The Four Horsemen”.
Stonewalling is a response to the first three behaviours. In the middle of a fight, some people stonewall as an instinctive self-protection mechanism. Because they feel psychologically overwhelmed, they need to shut down emotionally or remove themselves from the situation physically. They may stop responding, or they may leave the interaction. In the long term, one or both persons in the couple begin to avoid interacting with the other. Very little communication takes place, and what does take place is either reduced to talking about trivial, “safe” matters or continue to be destructive, peppered with repeated low-level expressions of criticism, counterattacks, and contempt.
Of course, not all couples who are stuck in such destructive interaction patterns end the relationship. There are many other predictors of relationship dissolution, as well as of staying in unhappy relationships. Nevertheless, if you notice getting engaged in increasingly hostile interactions, it may be a good time to stop and consider whether there is a more helpful way to solve conflicts with your partner.
Gottman has written several books advising couples who would like to improve their relationship. Some of these may be helpful:
Gottman, J. (1995). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail And How You Can Make Yours Last.
Gottman, J. & DeClaire, J. (2002). The Relationship Cure.
Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
Dr Marianna Szabo is a Clinical Psychologist, a leading expert in Mindfulness and a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sydney.