top of page

What Unhappy Couples do Wrong

Crossrail Place Roof Garden

There is a house in Seattle a couple can enter and within the hour a prediction can be made as to whether the marriage will make it or not. Would you sign up to enter that house?

It is true. Dr. John Gottman, has such a house where each couple who enters is wired for body responses, heart rate, skin temperature, etc. and invited to just enjoy the next 12 hours, doing whatever they choose. There are cameras and microphones in every room monitoring their every interaction. He reports that within the first hour his teams can predict with 95% accuracy whether their marriage will end in divorce or not.

How does he do that?

There are four relationship characteristics that are so harmful to relationships that their presence foreshadows the inevitable death of the marriage.

Just imagine, if you knew what these four characteristics were you could keep an eye out for them, and stop them before they started. Or if you knew what they were and found you had already started a death walk, you could turn around and save your marriage before it gets any worse.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Dr. Gottman calls these four characteristics the four horsemen of the apocalyps.

The four horsemen are:

  1. Criticism – Criticism is complaining with blame attached. Complaining by itself is not necessarily bad because it is addressing the other person behavior. But when we add blame to the complaint it addresses the essence of the person – they are BAD people. Criticism can also be complaining that is global in nature, “you always”, or “you never,” for example.

  2. Defensiveness – This refers to defending your own innocence, deflecting a verbal attack, meeting an attack with a counter attack, or just play whining. Defensiveness almost always denies responsibility for a problem shifting blame to the other person.  It is so destructive because on top of hot taking responsibility it also take the “innocent victim” stance.

  3. Contempt – This happens when one person criticizes the other from an “on high” position, or takes a superior or moral high ground position It is often accompanied with belligerence, rolling of the eyes, or raising the corner of the mouth. Contempt stimulates the fighting impulse in the relationship. Contempt is the MOST powerful predictor of divorce.

  4. Stonewalling – When a person begins to experience a flooding of emotion, they easily move into stonewalling. Stonewalling is withdrawing emotionally from all interaction. The stonewaller can stand in an argument and look right through the other person as if they don’t exist. It is a way to escape the conflict without physically moving. Stonewalling causes the couple to be together less therefore less interaction and less conflict, but it also eliminates the possibility of a positive outcome.

What Can Be Done?

Each of these traits has an antidote.

  1. Criticism – learn how to complain without blaming. Refuse to undermine the other persons character when talking about their behavior.

  2. Defensiveness – quickly accept responsibility for even a small part of the problem.

  3. Contempt – create a culture of appreciation in the marriage. Appreciation is the opposite of contempt.

  4. Stonewalling –Learn to accept and take responsibility for your emotions by self-soothing.

For more information read Dr. Gottman’s book, “Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.”

Want to learn more? Give us a call or make an appointment with one of our qualified therapists today!

Larry McElvain, Founder, Discovery Counseling Center

November 3, 2020


bottom of page