John Gottman's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The other day I was asked this interesting question by a prospective client:

“Amongst all the relationship experts out there, who is your inspiration?”

I had a hard time to name one expert as a source of inspiration. During my decade-long research and exploration of the topics of self-care, dating, and relationships, I learned from a lot of experts and from very diverse sources of wisdom and I discovered that what inspired me evolved as I transitioned from my twenties to my thirties, and from being single to being married.

And then a few days later I was reminded of John Gottman’s incredible contributions to the building and nurturing of happier and healthier relationships, and I realized that he has definitely been an ongoing source of inspiration in my relationships and in my marriage.

So, let's talk about his work this week!

Gottman conducted a fascinating research study based on observing the conflict management style of many couples. He discovered four behaviors that correlate with a higher risk of divorce later in life. He suggests couples to eradicate these behaviors and replace them by more respectful and constructive ones.

Without further ado, here are Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of a relationship, also known as the most likely predictors of divorce. Avoid them at all cost, and eradicate them as soon as you see them creep into your relationship!

1. Criticism:

Criticism is an attack of the whole person, whereas a complaint without blame addresses a specific behavior that we would like to see change.

  • Example of criticism: “You always forget to take out the garbage!”
  • Tip: Ask yourself “How am I feeling?” and “What do I need?”, and use NonViolent Communication to speak up.
  • Example of a specific complaint: “I’m feeling overwhelmed by the household chores. I would appreciate if you could help me by taking out the garbage.”

2. Defensiveness:

Being defensive is a reaction of self-protection in response of a perceived attack that unfortunately often ends up blaming the other person in return. It does not recognize the partner’s feelings and opinions, which of course never helps to resolve the conflict. Who enjoys not feeling seen and heard?

  • Example of defensiveness: “It’s not my fault if we ran out of milk, you’re drinking more milk than me."
  • Tip: Recognize your contribution to the problem, even if your contribution is only partial.
  • Example of recognizing a partial contribution: “Well, I did not realize that the milk was running low last time I used it. I wish I had paid attention at that time. How about we figure out a system to make sure we don't run out of milk anymore?"

3. Contempt:

According to Gottman, contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce amongst the four behaviors to avoid. It comes from a place of superiority, which has no place in a happy and healthy relationship. Contemptuous statements involve name-calling, sarcasm, eye-rolling, mockery, and hostile humor. It must be eliminated.

  • Example of contempt: “You’re lazy." (*making a disdainful facial expression*)
  • Tip: Nurture an environment of respect and appreciation in your relationship and express your feelings and needs gracefully.
  • Example of appreciation:  “I appreciate all the hard work you do to fix things around our home. However I feel burned out and need more support with the kids. What would you be willing to help me with?"

4. Stonewalling:

Stonewalling means withdrawing from the interaction, either physically by walking away, or emotionally by becoming numb. None of these behaviors help manage a conflict.

  • Tip:  Be mindful of your emotional arousal during a conflict and ask for a break when it becomes too high. Make a promise to come back to it once you have soothed yourself. Take your mind off the problem for at least 20 min and go back to the discussion once refreshed.

For more information, consider visiting The Gottman Institute's website.

And with all of this being said, please remember that - as with every source of wisdom - what leads to concrete results is putting the wisdom into practice. Day after day after day.

Does your relationship need healing? if yes, do you have a plan of action? What would help you putting it into practice?