The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Your Marriage

   Written by on January 12, 2017 at 12:25 pm
Cheryl Gowin and Dennis Gowin.  Call us at our counseling practice with your feedback, comments, issues, or questions at 434-808-2637.

Cheryl Gowin and Dennis Gowin.  Call us at our counseling practice with your feedback, comments, issues, or questions at 434-808-2637.

Have you ever found you and your spouse arguing other over something minor?  Have you asked if this meant your marriage is in danger?  Do you wonder if there are signs that indicate the marriage is heading toward failure?

According to Dr. John Gottman’s research, certain communication patterns are signs that a marriage is heading to failure.  He studied hundreds of couples to identify what failed marriages as well as what strong marriages had in common.  Based on this research, Dr. Gottman developed a model that predicts which couples will stay together and which ones will fall apart.  The model, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, provides four communication patterns that couples, whose marriages failed, used.  The components of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” destructive communication patterns are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Criticism, the first of the four destructive horsemen, attacks your spouse’s personality or character, rather than addressing a specific action or behavior.  You blame your spouse and attack his/her personality or character with verbal digs and barbs.  Your statements are blaming and accusing while starting generally with “You.”  For instance, instead of saying, “Please rinse out your dirty cup, and put it in the dishwasher,” you say, “You are such a slob!  You can’t even wash a cup properly.”

Criticism is different from voicing concern or complaining.  Expressing your opinion or some complaining can be helpful for a marriage.  Complaining is healthy if you express dissatisfaction while both you and your spouse follow through with talking about the issue.   

Contempt is the second horseman.  Contempt dials up the goal to hurt with the intentional insult and psychological abuse of your spouse.  With your words and body language, you lob insults right at the heart of your spouse’s sense of self.  Unresolved issues stealthily permeate other aspects of your relationship.  The resulting anger creates a negative thought pattern.  Soon, you begin to forget what originally attracted you to each other.  Signs of contempt include insults, name-calling, hostile humor, and mockery.  Body language that communicates disgust, such as eye rolling or sneering is also contemptuous.  Contemptuous communication results in decay of admiration or positive feelings.

Defensiveness is the third destructive horseman.  Defensiveness takes many forms.  In its simplest, it is the act of making excuses for your actions or refusing to accept responsibility.  Whining, a false smile, arms folded across the chest embodies a form of defensiveness.  Another means of defensiveness is disagreeing with mind reading or responding with yes but.  The last example of defensiveness is cross complaining by responding you don’t like this, well I don’t like something else.   

An illustration of negative mind reading goes like this:  Wife – “You hate when I go out to dinner with my sister.  You think I should stay home with the kids.”  Husband – “That’s not true.  Thursday is a problem because I have a business dinner.”

An example of cross complaining is: Wife – “You never want to have people over for dinner.  You’re too lazy.”  Husband – “If you would clean the house once in a while, we could have people over.”

A defensive spouse may feel his/her spouse is judging him/her.  This victim mentality harms a relationship.  Defensiveness communication results in obstructed communication and escalated conflict.

Stonewalling, the final horseman, occurs when you withdraw completely.  Stonewalling is the complete shutdown of communication.  When you stonewall, you may say you are just trying to be neutral and keep an argument from escalating.  However, the message you send is that you don’t care enough to engage.

Disagreements are unavoidable in a marriage.  However, watch out for the four horsemen communication styles.  The key to a stable marriage is the way you communicate and resolve conflict.  Dr. Gottman’s 5 to 1 formula is an easy first step to improving your communication.  The formula is for every negative interaction between you and your spouse make sure you have at least five positive interactions.

 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.  Ephesians 4:29.

Call us with your feedback, comments, issues, or questions; our phone number is 434-808-2637.

About Cheryl & Dennis Gowin

Cheryl Gowin, Counselor and Dennis Gowin, Director of Discovery Counseling Center. Contact us with your feedback, comments, issues or questions at 434-808-2426 or


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