John Gottman (b.1942), professor emeritus in Psychology (Univ. of WA), is known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis through direct, scientific observations. Gottman developed multiple models, scales and formulas to predict marital stability and divorce in couples, and has completed seven studies in this field.
Gottman’s work identifies four major negative behaviors that are highly destructive to the couple’s connection when they appear too frequently in their interactions: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Gottman labeled these four behaviors: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
When you criticize your partner you are implying that there is something wrong with him/her. You have taken a problem between you and projected it onto your partner. Using the words, “you always” or “you never” are common ways to criticize. Your partner is most likely to feel under attack and to respond defensively. In this dangerous pattern, neither partner feels heard, and both may begin to feel bad about themselves in the presence of the other.
Antidote to criticism: Make a direct complaint that is not a global attack on your partner’s personality.
When you attempt to defend yourself from a perceived attack with justifications or with a counter complaint — you are being defensive. Defensiveness prevents partners from taking responsibility for issues and problems, and quickly escalates the exchange, eventually shutting down all productive communication.
Antidote to defensiveness: Try to hear your partner’s complaint and take some responsibility for the problem.
Contempt is any statement or non-verbal behavior that attempts to put yourself on higher ground than your partner. Mocking your partner, calling him/her names, rolling your eyes and sneering in disgust are all contemptuous behaviors. Contempt is, fundamentally, profoundly disrespectful, and of all the Horsemen, the most serious. This type of put-down will, in time, destroy the fondness and admiration you and your partner once felt for one another.
Antidote to contempt: Lower your tolerance for contemptuous statements and behaviors; work actively to build a culture of appreciation in the relationship.
Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the conversation. The Stonewaller (80% are men) might actually physically leave or just stop tracking the conversation and shut down. Although it may look as if he doesn’t care, the Stonewaller is actually feeling overwhelmed and is trying to calm himself. This is, of course, generally ineffectual; his partner feels abandoned and dismissed, and a vicious circle is created, with one partner pressing harder and harder for discussion and connection, and the other desperately seeking escape.
Antidote to stonewalling: Learn to identify the signs when you or your partner is starting to feel emotionally overwhelmed, and agree together to take a break. If the problem still needs to be discussed, pick it up when you are calmer.