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Beware of these marriage killers

Communication is a factor in every relationship. In fact, it’s so important that in a committed relationship you cannot not communicate. Everything you do, or don’t do, communicates.

When you believe this, your goal shifts—you want to handle the messages from others and clearly say what you mean.

Even so, there are some things when it comes to communication that are just killers in marriage … enter the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

When you understand that there are four seasons in every year, that it’s cold in winter and hot in summer, it’s easier to change your clothes than it is to try and change the season. It’s not possible to change the season—and it’s also not possible to change your spouse—or anyone else you know and love.

It’s only possible to change yourself. Is it possible you might need to change the way you communicate in your marriage?

Renowned marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman has identified communication styles that predict the end of a marriage, which he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

(Actually, Dr. Gottman has observed four destructive styles of communicating and coping that accurately predict the long-term failure of a marriage: harsh startup, flooding, body language, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.)

While harsh startup, flooding, and body language are destructive, the four horsemen provide the deadliest blow to marriage.

These four horsemen are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt—with contempt being the most lethal.

If you want a better marriage in 2012, you’ll need to get rid of these—with contempt to go first.

1. Contempt.

Contempt is intentionally abusing your spouse—verbally, emotionally, and psychologically. Contempt expresses the complete absence of any admiration and is delivered with insults, name-calling, hostile humor, mockery, and body language. Contempt is toxic, and its presence is an indication of a disintegrating marriage.

If criticism and contempt are a regular part of your relationship, think about counseling to help you take a different shape.

2. Criticism.

Understanding the difference between criticizing and complaining is more than semantics, because criticism is the slippery slope that slides into contempt.

Criticisms creep in when complaints are ignored. Criticisms are global attacks on character and on worth, and they target the shortcomings of the other person.

Complaints are objective statements of unmet needs (and a good thing). Use this as a guide—an effective complaint is one that:

• Starts softly, with a request for helpI need your help.
Observes an action or behaviorWhen there are stacks of mail on the kitchen table and counters…
• States the impact of that action or behaviorI react badly to the clutter.
• Defines the desired change in behaviorI’d like to keep the kitchen table and counters clear.
• Asks for input as to how to achieve the outcomeWhat are you willing to do to help have a less cluttered kitchen and a calmer me?

Side note: These first two horsemen have often grown up with childhood wounds such as parental criticism, shaming, belittling, or excessive demands.

3. Defensiveness.

This is a natural reaction to being criticized or treated contemptuously; it’s also a way of sidestepping responsibility. If you are ignoring complaints or failing to contribute creative solutions, those complaints are likely to become criticisms… which naturally lead to defense.

Remember this mantra: Don’t attack. Don’t defend. Don’t withdraw. Marriage is supposed to be for better or worse. Stay present, especially when the going gets rough.

4. Stonewalling.

When you stonewall, you avoid the hard work of growing up, either because you’re unaware of your own feelings or because you’re afraid of conflict. Rather than dealing directly with an issue or with your spouse, you check out—you tune out, turn away, and engage in busyness or obsessive behaviors.

Put another way—you simply stop relating to the most important person in your life.

Dr. Gottman’s research clearly demonstrates that conflict is not the cause of unhappy marriages—happy and unhappy couples fight about the same things. How conflict is handled is what makes the difference between a disaster or master marriage.

Most couples wait for six years after they know their relationship is in serious trouble before they seek counseling. Yep, SIX YEARS! Evidence continues to mount that both individual and family therapy save money by cutting health expenditures, reducing employee absenteeism, and boosting productivity.

Start where you are in your relationship. Use the tools you have—blogs, books, therapists, coaches, online classes like Blow Up My Marriage.

Do what you can to take responsibility for your part by becoming the best YOU you can be. Once you’re on the path to being the YOU, you’re well on your way to being in the best marriage.

What helps you keep communication a priority in your relationships?

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  1. Amanda

    Thank you so much. We know a few couples on the rocks, and I have watched the wife do all these things. It just breaks my heart. It is a good reminder too. Thanks for the difference between complaints and criticism. I needed that!

  2. Brittnie (A Joy Renewed)

    Great post! We have friends who are really struggling to keep their marriage alive and well. It is so true how you said that people in happy and unhappy marriages fight about the same things, same issues, etc. We fight about the same stuff that our friends do yet the way we talk about issues and choose to resolve them are completely different. Makes all the difference.

  3. Audrey @ Mom Drop Box

    I first learned of Dr. Gottman’s work in college, and then bought his 7 Principles for Making Marriages Work book after I got married, and it is SO helpful for learning how to communicate well with your spouse.

    The best thing it taught me about communication is that when you have a harsh start-up and you or your spouse get flooded, you need to stop, take a break, and start again later.

  4. VrajaCandrika

    The Fire Extinbguisher – Principle of ‘Tolerance’ in Marriage
    Even pleasant sweet aromatic breezes can cause dry wood to catch fire and destroy the forest. – Radhanath Swami.

    A saint asked his disciples, ‘Why do people shout at each other when they are angry? Why shout when the other person is just next to you?’ Disciples gave some answers but none satisfied the saint. Finally the saint explained, ‘When two people are angry at each other, their hearts distance a lot. To cover that distance they need to raise their voice. The angrier they are, the greater the heart-distance, and the stronger they have to shout to make themselves heard.’

    Everyone in this material world wants to be a little God – “I am the enjoyer, I am the center, I am the controller”. Such egoistic sentiments are like dry sticks of firewood stacked up inside the heart. With both spouses in this mood, many marital problems start as little fights over trifling disagreements. These trifles are the breezes that rub the ego and produce sparks. And it doesn’t take much time for sparks to cause raging fires. Sometimes, even very sweet aromatic breezes with so many fragrances can somehow cause egos to rub and cause a wild fire.

    Radhanath Swami notes that whenever pure spiritual topics are discussed, the participants forget all kinds of material hankering, at least for the time being. Not only that, they give up their envy towards one another, and their anxiety and fear evaporates. In the Bhagavat Gita (10.9), Krishna explains: “the thoughts of My pure devotees always dwell in Me, their lives are devoted in serving Me, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss coming together conversing about Me, discussing about Me, and chanting My names”.

    This, then, is the most effective fire extinguisher for the matters of the heart: association of devotees, coming together and discussing God, chanting His names, and inspiring one another to serve Him. This is where real pleasure resides.

    The winds of petty disagreements can never ignite a wild fire in the hearts thus drenched by loving sentiments for God and each other. Instead, the soft hearts would easily be able to tolerate the onslaught of stormy disagreements by sticking together in the service of God.

  5. Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy

    I LOVE John Gottman’s work (even wrote a post for my Best Book You’ve Never Heard of series on his The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work). I’m so glad all the Simple Mom readers get to find out about him today!

    He’s written a nice corollary to the 4 Horsemen….check out his Magic 5 Hours for a Successful Marriage!

  6. Lorilee @ Loving Simple

    Thanks so much for featuring this article. Marriage health is so important and I have been seeing so much pain around me lately where it has fallen apart. These tips are great for helping a marriage become great as well. So often it is just ‘stay together’ but miserable. Marriage has so much more potential than that. Thanks!

  7. Living the Balanced Life

    Having been married over 3o years, I have to say, unfortunately, that I have been guilty of all of this at one time or another. Many times there were issues that he and I needed to work on together, but most of the time “I” needed an attitude adjustment and some time in prayer.
    Young couples going into marriage really have no idea how much work it actually will be, but worth the effort!
    Great post!

    • Chris

      I think It is normal for everyone to catch themselves doing these things occasionally. The key to me is catching yourself AND stopping yourself. As a newbie to marriage, especially compared to 30 years (8 yrs together, 4 married) communication, spoken and unspoken, is something my husband I discuss the value of often. We have our conflicts but we are not scared of conflict because we agree that handled well they are an essential part of marriage, enabling us to come together even more. My parents were splitting as I entered my relationship and I knew I would work my butt off not to end up there too. It broke my heart when a friend my age divorced her husband of four years. 🙁
      Kudos to you two for 30 years and I can’t wait to say I’ve made it there too. On second thought, I can wait, because I look forward to thoroughly enjoying each one of those years as it comes and goes with my wonderful man!

  8. Lindsey van Niekerk

    I have asked my husband this question on multiple occasions, especially when I sense he is becoming defensive based on what I have felt is simply a complaint/request/need for something to change, “What or how can I say this better or in a different way where you can hear my heart and it does not come across like I am attacking you?” It makes us both step back and think about {for me} how I am speaking and {for him} if his defensiveness is about me or something else. Not perfect…but it has been a tool to help us navigate those murky-water moments.

  9. Mel@MySunshine

    This is sooo true. I’ve recently realized I need to get rid of my tendency to be sarcastic in a very mean way. It’s not productive and when it’s done to me…well, I don’t like it. Thanks for the tips!

  10. Hillary

    Holy cow.
    “Don’t attack. Don’t defend. Don’t withdraw.”
    No wonder my marriage failed. All we did was “Attack, Defend, and Withdraw.”
    I feel so much better having NAMED 3 key points that led us to divorce.
    Knowing is half the battle to not repeating them.

  11. Jenna@CallHerHappy

    Yikes! That last one sounds the most dangerous. I am going to save this as a reference and send it to my hubby! Thanks!


  12. Gina

    This is such a great reminder on how important good communication is in a marriage. Not just discussing the surface things but being willing to dig deeper when that’s necessary, which is usually always. One thing that really made a difference for us was going through an Alpha marriage course, because of that we have regular marriage time. That undistracted time to focus only on each other is huge!

  13. Bill Swan

    The sad part is that this can also happen in friendships and family. I lived with one family where the person whom the first two horsemen could be blood brothers he used them often enough. And they had a four-year old, who was picking up quickly what daddy inadvertently taught (name calling, blaming, avoidance, criticism and judging). I’m guessing the history of this goes back beyond the current generation.

    • Corey

      You’re right.

      Things are passed on throughout the generations, both good and bad.

    • Chris

      The good news is though that it CAN be changed! We had a nephew who had been copying his father’s ways, and it is amazing how quickly he began changing after we all started working with his dad on his behavior. It sounds horrible but we used to dread time spent with this one child and now he is such a joy. Keep positive examples around and work to change the negative ones. The cycle can stop!

  14. katie @ Imperfect People

    This is a great post! Yes it is so easy to fall into some of these. Thank you!

  15. wisemommies

    Love this article. Just shared the step by step for criticism with my hubby and he likes. It is very important to communicate everything. We try to do this in our marriage and we have been happy for nearly 6 years now. However, you have given me some helpful tools to work with and that I need to work on….thank you!

  16. Steph

    Thanks for explaining the difference between complaints and criticism. It’s amazing how working together toward a solution instead of aimlessly condemning a person or situation makes all the difference in marital communication.

  17. sonya @ lil'soak + friends

    This was a good encouragement. We are running a business together along with a toddler, and the pressure is immense and I find that we can easily point fingers at one another.

  18. Dee@ Small House Life

    It seems the older we get, hubby and I, the better we communicate.. and that spills over into all our relationships.

    Super good read, now I’m off to check out your site.


  19. Michelle @ Find Your Balance

    Super post. yes, my marriage has seen all of these but luckily we are not waiting 6 years!

  20. priest's wife

    this is a very important post- another marriage killer is apathy- don’t you think?

    I think it is better to scream and cry (blessedly, very rarely) that to not care…

  21. Angel Collins

    A very interesting and helpful article. Nowadays, most couple can easily get married but can also get easily divorced and separated. I didn’t know about that Four Horsemen of Apocalypse and really, from the sound of it, it seems so bad for the relationship. Thanks so much for sharing and I’d definitely share this also to my married friends. 🙂

  22. Natalia

    Gulp, I see a few behaviors that are present in my marriage. Thankfully we are both determined to grow and change even when it feels really hard. Thanks for the post!

  23. Kim

    Late to the party here, but you have brought up some key points about communication. I absolutely cringe when I hear wives speak to their husbands with contempt. There is so much damage we do emotionally when we start to feel taken advantage of or unloved.

    We do and say very foolish things as we lash out with our hurt feelings instead of taking a deep breath, stepping back and asking our spouse later to sit and chat with us quietly as we talk in an adult way about what works for us and how we feel when we are treated or spoken to in a particular way.

    I have found it helpful to also learn about both my and my husband’s love language so that I know best how to “fill his tank”, and vice versa.

  24. Onde comprar Herbalife

    Criticism may be the most dangerous of these marriage killers. Constant and cruel criticism may smash anyone’s self esteem, leading to unhappyness and suffering, and ending on the death of the mutual respect.

  25. Cara Rogers

    WOW, This is so true, it’s like talking to my marriage counselor. I swear I seen all 4 of these come through before we finally went to get help. I’m still searching around though wanting to find ever answer I can to fix my marriage. This is a great article and blog thank you for your words they will help in so many ways.

  26. Jeff Darling

    I myself was just married 2 years ago. My wife and I wanted our marriage to be done the right way. Gods way. So we lived separately before marriage and went to 6 weeks of premarital training at a church. I believe that marriage takes work, and men, listen you have to be the one to really reach out to your wives and honor them. This means you have to study your wives and be there for them. To quote Bill and Ted, just “Be Excellent To Each Other!”

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