The ‘Four Horsemen’ That Can Predict Whether You’ll Get Divorced

The ‘Four Horsemen’ That Can Predict Whether You’ll Get Divorced
Photo: fizkes, Shutterstock

Divorce is the big “D” word that no one in a marriage wants to think about — but we all know it happens, even to couples whose relationship was once happy and strong. If you’ve been struggling with your relationship — or you’re just someone who’d rather be proactive than reactive when it comes to your marriage — you might be wondering if there’s something that could help you and your partner avoid divorce altogether.

Dr. John Gottman, a renowned psychologist and relationship expert, is known for his work on divorce prediction. After studying thousands of couples arguing in his lab, he identified specific negative patterns that predict divorce, which he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — meaning, if they show up in your marriage continuously, you can be sure you’re headed for divorce court.

Along with knowledge comes power, though. Once you know what these patterns are, you can recognise how and when they show up in your marriage. Rebecca Phillips, a licensed professional counselor, shares her thoughts on the Four Horsemen, and how you can prevent those behaviours, and show up better for your partner and yourself — and, in turn, keep your marriage intact.

Criticism in a marriage

“To criticise is to express the judgment of another person,” Phillips says. “Criticism is different from critiquing or confronting. The latter entail addressing issues while the former is about attacking your partner’s character.

Phillips says criticism is destructive because it causes pain and disconneciton.

“Criticism can become a vicious and chronic pattern that leads to the other horseman,” she says, “such as defensiveness and contempt.”

Criticism sounds like, “Why are you taking out the trash like that? You never do anything right.” Or, “I’m always trying to have a conversation with you, and you never listen to me.”

To prevent criticism, Phillips says it’s important to use “I” statements rather than “you” statements when engaged in confrontation or conflict.

Instead of saying, “You never answer me. You’re so inconsiderate of others,” try saying, “I feel worried when I don’t receive a response to my calls or texts.”Instead of saying, “You never stand up to your mother. You must care more about her opinion than mine,” try saying, “I would feel more supported if you stood up for me around your mother.”

Contempt in a marriage

“Contempt is essentially acting superior to your partner,” Phillips says. “It can be identified as disrespecting your partner, mocking them, ridiculing them, name-calling, and using sarcasm.

According to the Gottman Institute, contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce. “It generally develops when negative thoughts about one’s partner build up and begin to come out in disparaging ways,” Phillips says.

Contempt sounds like, “You really shouldn’t wear that outfit. Why can’t you wear normal clothes?” Or, “You’re such an idiot. You never make any sense.”

To prevent contemptuous behaviour, it’s imperative that partners treat each other with respect and appreciation.

Instead of saying, “What do you have to complain about? You sit on your rear all day in your office job and then just play games online. How pathetic,” say, “It sounds like you’ve had a rough day. I can relate. How can we make tonight better?”

Defensiveness in a marriage

“Defensiveness often results from criticism,” Phillips says. “People often become defensive when feeling judged by their partners rather than being met with compassion and understanding.”

Not only does defensiveness invalidate what your partner is trying to communicate, she says, it also ensures that neither party gets through to the other. Defensive can sound like, “Why are you asking me to wash the dishes? You know I’ve had a long day at work. You’re home all day. Why don’t you just do them?”

Trade defensiveness for non-defensive responses, Philllips suggests. Responding non-defensively involves hearing your partner’s perspective and taking personal responsibility.

Instead of saying, “I only keep stuff from you because of how you always react,” try saying, “I understand that you would like me to be more open and that doing so would help our relationship. Can we discuss what we both need for better communication?”

Stonewalling in a marriage

“Stonewalling happens when a partner becomes emotionally flooded and is often a response to contempt,” Phillips says. “Stonewalling entails shutting down, withdrawing, or giving your partner the cold shoulder.”

According to Phillips, stonewalling is an ineffective way of coping. “It can easily become a destructive pattern in a relationship by creating more distance between partners and ensuring problems are left unattended. Stonewalling essentially creates a wedge where the one partner feels shut out from the other.”

Stonewalling looks like avoiding eye contact, not texting or calling back, pretending to be busy, or ignoring their partner in the same room.

“It’s important to regulate your emotions when you become emotionally flooded,” Phillips says. “Instead of shutting down altogether, try to communicate your need to calm down before continuing a conversation.”

Instead of walking away, giving the silent treatment, avoiding eye contact, or engaging in another task while ignoring your partner, try telling your partner you’d like to take some time to collect yourself before continuing the conversation. 

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