Many people have heard of what John Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of a failing marriage; Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness; and Stonewalling. Recently, I noticed a feature of these four threats to marriage, something I had not noticed before. May I share some thoughts about what I discovered?
First, in case you have not read the excellent book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, let me recommend it, highly. Gottman brings over 40 years of good research to the book and to many other marriage publications and training opportunities. So much opinion on the street is only anecdotal, or repeated from other people, yet with little or no research findings to inform and document the views. Of course, much opinion is provided by the individual’s own experience in a marriage. This book is an informative read, an easy read, and it contains excellent exercises for a couple to practice together.
Criticism attacks the character of the other person. There should be room for a legitimate complaint, given without fight-talk or spite-talk, but when attacks happen and these attacks become vicious, the relationship is in trouble. Often a client will say, “Of course, I didn’t mean it…”, to which I say, “Actually, you did mean something… You meant to hurt, and disable the spirit of your spouse. Yes, you did.”
Contempt is especially bad… it is the most dangerous of the four. Contempt suggests that all hope is lost, that nothing will ever be done well enough by the recipient of the contempt, and that this is a continuous, underlying attitude, not just found during an argument but all the time. There are antidotes, but they are seldom used.
Defensiveness tries to make it all about the defender, or it tries to turn things around and make it the other person’s fault. I call this latter one the, “Oh yeah, what about you…”, defense. It is the most common horseman, and is dangerous mostly because it shows up so often, but it is also the most curable…good news.
Stonewalling happens for many reasons, of course we can’t always hear why from the Stonewaller. By definition, this person is giving their spouse the silent treatment. Sometime it is happening because the spouse is using one of the other horsemen, and the stonewaller is trying to escape. Other times it may be because this person has brought with them a habit from childhood, and they may actually believe this is the only way they can survive.
That thought about survival is what made me notice something new, for me. Here it is. All four of these horsemen are about survival and safety. However, however, however… they are all about safety for only one person, and about danger for the other person. Why should only one person be safe?
For those couples that Gottman calls, “the Masters of Relationship”, safety is something shared. The relationship is treated as more important than the issue being talked about. The Masters of Relationship don’t build their relationship around using anger to communicate, nor do they build it around worry that their spouse might “get mad”. (Not that you can’t have anger or other emotions, but emotions are there to inform you about your well-being, but anger is not a good communication tool. It would be like using your smoke detector as an oven timer.)
Sharing safety is about kindness, a trait for both people to practice, but it is also dependent upon the belief by both people that they will both be heard, understood, and treated fairly by the other. Lots of good results turn risk into trust and confidence. This can be tough for the person who grew up seldom or never seeing it modeled by their parents, and maybe not in their previous relationships. But… it can be true for the couple that becomes committed to the experience.
It isn’t supposed to be hard, in fact it is supposed to be easy, and it is for the kind, the loving, the courageous… those who abandon selfishness, and share safety, for the purpose of resolving the issue and blessing the relationship.