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Gottman — “Oh S^%&T, Your Marriage Is in Trou-ble”

Rachel Alexander April 6, 2022

{5 minutes to read}  In this article, we continue our series with colleague Meredith Keller, LPC, ACS, couples’ therapist, who explores with us the primary reasons couples come to her in the first place. Meredith identifies one of the primary issues in struggling marriages as this: one or both parties are unable to monitor – and moderate – their own difficult feelings. When a party cannot manage his/her own feelings, he/she typically does not know of a healthy way to express it to his/her partner. And that results in all kinds of problems, like blaming the other person for how you are feeling, or inadvertently outsourcing “feeling management” to the other. We will unpack this complex dynamic more in a later article.

John M. Gottman, Ph.D. is one of the leading experts on marriages – predicting which marriages will succeed and which will end. Gottman’s research found that four factors, which he named the four horsemen, are the key predictors of whether a couple will divorce or stay together.

Gottman’s Four Horsemen: 

Contempt: The worst and clearest indicator of a marriage that is in real trouble, is contempt. Contempt is a toxic potion of disdain, hatred and resentment. Contempt has a particular flavor. Where there is contempt, there tends to be a power imbalance; a sense that one spouse is more important than the other.

Criticism:  couples who are critical of each other and ridicule one another are heading south. A critical relationship environement fosters distrust and dis-ease, emotional danger as well as a host of other things best left in Pandora’s box.

Defensiveness:  Defensiveness is the enemy of generative communication. There are several ways defensiveness shows up.

  • Deflection is one form of defensiveness. It is dodging, diverting or distracting from the issue at hand; frustrating meaningful communication. Deflection can be done with humor, changing the subject, redirecting the conversation, and a host of other creative ways. Deflection can be an artful tactic of managing communication, for example, deferring a subject for later when there is privacy, however, when deflection is habitually used to block important conversations, it becomes problematic.

  • Explaining or excusing the issue so that the issue itself does not get any attention. 

  • Victim stance (adopting a). When someone adopts a victim stance they manipulate and disable the party asserting a need or raising an issue. This is a particular type of defensiveness that can also be interwoven with hyperbole. It obfuscates the specificity of an issue which could otherwise potentially be managed by dousing it in “always”, “never”, and so forth, making the issue so general and insurmountable due to exaggerated limitations, that only hopelessness or abandoning the conversation ensue. Example: “Oh, you really hurt my feelings,” says the wife. And the husband, adopting a victim stance, says, “Well, I’m the worst husband ever.” That is either a conversation ender or becomes the start of an entirely different conversation wherein the wife must now say “no you are not,” and comfort the husband. There is no room to address the initial matter. Other examples include:

“Well, I always get it wrong.”

“You’re always hurt.”

“I’m the worst.”

Implicit in the victim stance is a forgone conclusion, as in: this is how I am; take it or leave it; my way or the highway. It steals any room for an actual, honest interaction or for anything to be addressed or changed.

Stonewalling: The fourth horseman is stonewalling, defined as deliberate unresponsiveness. It can be a poker face, registering no inflection or emotion, leaving the other to feel he is looking into a blank mirror.  Stonewalling can be literally walking out of the room or figuratively getting up and leaving; shutting down. Stonewalling is not the same as taking a time out, consciously and expressly delaying a conversation by setting aside a later time before entering into an important discussion.  The latter can be a thoughtful response, asking to delay an interaction to a time and place where it can be better attended to, whereas stonewalling is a refusal to interact. Stonewalling puts everything back on the other person – it is akin to one partner walking off the dance floor in the middle of a partner’s dance.  Stonewalling has a gaslighting effect, so the stonewalled person is alone with the entire responsibility of the issue, feeling unheard and unseen as he is not even being responded to in a predictable manner based on cultural etiquette.  The experience of being stonewalled is like having no echo or reflection.  Stonewalling is the gorilla warfare of communication.

When Gottman’s four horsemen canter into a marriage they need immediate attention and professional intervention. In the next article, we discuss the antidotes to them.