How To Spot And Defeat The Four Marriage Killers

Communication, Relationship Design, Simplicity

Photo courtesy Dylerpillar

Editor’s Note: This post is by Simple Marriage contributor Mary Ann Crossno.
The goal of Simple Marriage is to present the complexities of marriage that few of us understand in a simple manner that all can apply. Some basic premises that guide our thinking are

  • Human potential is shaped by human interaction.
  • Relationships are a tool designed by God to refine us.
  • Marriage, used properly, is a people growing machine.

In every post we’re looking for a way to shed light on the knowable, observable, predictable patterns of behavior that shape relationships – to make the covert, overt. Once you gain awareness that your behavior and your spouse’s behavior echo universal themes across millennia, it’s easier to focus your energy on changing and growing more self.
Think of relationships as embedded in nature – once you know that there are four seasons in every year and that it’s cold in winter and hot in summer, it’s easier to change your clothes than it is to change the season. In fact, 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.
Here’s the new version of the Serenity Prayer, designed to reflect these thoughts. Instead of Serenity Prayer, I call it the Power of One. [Open a printable, color copy to post as a daily reminder]


The recent posts examining the difference between criticism and complaints are based on Dr. John Gottman’s research identifying communication styles that predict the end of a marriage relationship, which he called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in marriage. (If you’re not familiar with Biblical references, the Four Horsemen are a metaphor for conquest, war, hunger, and death associated with the end times.)
Dr. Gottman observed four destructive styles of communicating and coping that accurately predict the long-term failure of a marriage:

  1. Harsh startup
  2. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
  3. Flooding
  4. Body Language

We’ll be covering harsh startup, flooding, and body language in future posts – but we start with the Four Horsemen because they are the most deadly blow to a marriage. The four horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, and contempt is the most lethal of the four. It’s the acid rain on a marriage, withering affection and destroying hope. So for a simple marriage, you simply have to get rid of these – and contempt has to go first.
The first destructive horseman in a relationship is 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 worth that target the shortcomings of the other. Complaints are objective statements of unmet needs. An effective complaint is one that

  1. Starts softly, with a request for help
    – I need your help.
  2. Observes an action or behavior
    – When there are stacks of mail on the kitchen table and counters,
  3. States the impact of that action or behavior
    – I react badly to the clutter.
  4. Defines the desired change in behavior
    – I’d like to keep the kitchen table and counters clear.
  5. Asks for input as to how to achieve the outcome
    – What are you willing to do to help have a less cluttered kitchen and a calmer me?

The second horseman is 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. It must be eliminated.
If criticism and contempt are a regular part of your relational style, think about counseling to help you take a different shape. These two horsemen grew up in childhood wounds such as parental criticism, shaming, belittling or excessive demands.
The third horseman is defensiveness. It’s a natural reaction to being criticized or treated contemptuously. It’s also a way of sidestepping responsibility. If we are ignoring complaints, failing to contribute creative solutions, those complaints are likely to become criticisms which we naturally want to defend against. Remember the 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.
The fourth horseman is stonewalling. When we stonewall, we avoid the hard work of growing up, either because we are unaware of our own feelings or because we are afraid of conflict. Rather than dealing directly with the issue or with our partner, we check out by tuning out, turning away, engaging in busyness or obsessive behaviors. We simply stop relating to the most important people in our lives.
Dr. Gottman’s research clearly demonstrates that conflict is not the cause of unhappy marriages – happy and unhappy couples fight about the same things. It’s how conflict is handled that makes the difference between a disaster or master marriage.
Most couples wait for six years – SIX YEARS!!!!! – after they know their relationship is in serious trouble before they seek counseling. 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. Do what you can to take responsibility for your part by becoming the best YOU you can be.
To repeat – Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.