Contributors to Marital Apocalypse Series
What ingredients make for an unsatisfying, dysfunctional relationship? Check out an overview by Marti Witherow as a helpful reference. In her post, she conveys a summary of some of the most identifiable contributors of dysfunction according to the decades of research conducted by Drs. John and Julie Gottman.
In this series of blogs, we highlight and expound upon one group of dysfunctional contributors Gottman calls “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.” These are four ways of describing behaviors that are often present in one or both partners. Sometimes, as a result, the partners turn away from one another in their distress rather than turning towards connecting with one another. These behaviors are not a threat for simply existing, but rather, for often escalating negative interactions.
In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman explains his label of The Four Horseman. He describes observing couples who escalate with negative interactions. These interactions result in a lethal trampling of each other’s heart, threatening the relationship’s health and longevity (pg. 27).
The four behaviors known as the Horseman are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
Discovering the Root of Dysfunctional Behaviors
My experience working at a psychiatric, long-term, inpatient center for children trained me to look beyond behaviors to discover what is really trying to be communicated. I remember how helpful it is to learn new ways of interpreting behaviors of children with aggression and other extreme behavioral reactivity. Every behavior is a way that a child is trying to communicate something extremely important to them. However, they lack the awareness, skill, and capacity to coherently verbalize effectively in the moment. The training invites a look beyond the behavior to the need or complaint the child’s behavior is trying to communicate.
As a therapist I utilize a similar, albeit more sophisticated, framework to provide insight into how adults use behaviors to try and communicate needs or complaints. The horseman of criticism comes galloping in when one partner tries to express something very important but does it in such a way that has a higher potential for escalation than connection. The way in which each partner attempts to communicate their complaints plays a role in how well they experience being heard, understood, and validated.
The First Horseman: Criticism
Complaints Vs. Criticism
Complaints attempt to describe specific events, actions, or behaviors involving your partner that results in experiencing negative, unwanted, and unpleasant emotions. At best, the complaint provides direct feedback to your partner about how to interpret their action or inaction. Whereas, as at worst, it is an expression of concern and lack of trust you are experiencing in the relationship.
Notice that a complaint is addressing a specific event that happened (or didn’t happen), and how you feel about it. On the other hand, a criticism becomes more of a global statement of blame.
More times than not, when criticism emerges in the relationship, there have already been repeated attempts at communicating complaints that resulted in very little change, if any. When complaints seem to go unnoticed or unaddressed, it is natural to build in anger. This sets the stage to use criticism as a way to release this pent up anger by using blame, personal attacks, or character assassination.
Examples of Complaints vs. Criticism
Complaint. I really wish you would have asked before you invited anyone over tonight. I’m disappointed we couldn’t just relax and watch a movie or something.
Criticism. You never ask me what I want to do before you decide to ask someone over.
Complaint. I’m really upset that you forgot to stop and get gas in the car like you said you would last night. That means I’m going to be late this morning.
Criticism. I can’t believe you forgot to get gas for me! It is unbelievable how I can’t count on you to do anything.
Complaint. It really annoyed me to be continually disrupted by your texts today while I was trying to meet my deadline this afternoon.
Criticism. Do you even care that I can’t get anything done when you are texting me all day long about stuff that can wait until later?
Complaint. We decided together that we wouldn’t spend any more money on eating out this month! I feel so betrayed that you went to eat anyway and then lied about it when I asked.
Criticism. You don’t ever think about anyone but yourself. You have no self control, and now I can’t trust you anymore!
Again, notice that a complaint is addressing a specific event that happened (or didn’t happen), and how you feel about it. On the other hand, a criticism becomes more of a global statement of blame. One of the sure-fire markers of criticism includes using words like “always” and “never” or some other absolute negative statement about your partner.
Taming the Horse: Solutions
Some guidelines that John Gottman shares in another of his best selling books Why Marriages Succeed or Fail are (p.191):
- Remove the blame from your comments.
- Say how you feel.
- Don’t criticize your partner’s personality.
- Don’t insult, mock, or use sarcasm.
- Be direct.
- Stick with one situation.
- Don’t try to analyze your partner’s personality.
- Don’t mind-read.
This list focuses on understanding the difference between specific complaints and global criticism. The more concrete you can be about how you feel while avoiding indirect, sarcastic, and accusing comments, the better the chances that your partner will be able to understand why you’re upset.
The X, Y, Z Statement
Gottman also goes on to provide a helpful communication guide that he calls the “X, Y, Z” statement. The guide provides a better way to communicate complaints (p 191-192). The “X” represents what you specifically observed from your partner, the “Y” represents the situation, and the “Z” represents how you felt. It is not important that it is in the “X,Y, Z” order, but rather that each component is included in a way that reflects your normal speech.
Let’s review the examples above to see the paradigm in action.
- I really wish you would have asked before you invited anyone (X) over tonight (Y). I’m disappointed (Z) we couldn’t just relax and watch a movie or something.
- I’m really upset (Z) that you forgot to stop and get gas in the car like you said you would (X) last night (Y).That means I’m going to be late this morning (Y).
- It really annoyed me (Z) to be continually disrupted by your texts today (X) while I was trying to meet my deadline this afternoon (Y).
- We decided together that we wouldn’t spend any more money on eating out this month (Y)! I feel so betrayed (Z) that you went to eat anyway and then lied about it when I asked (X).
Learning the Correct Approach
It is often helpful and surprising to discover that there is skill involved in delivering something loaded with negative emotion. Consequently, most couples locked in criticism have lost hope that they will recover their deeper connection.
If you are looking for help in accomplishing this, consider making an appointment. We have several therapists with advanced training in Gottman techniques that would be happy to help.
Gottman, John M., The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.
Gottman, John M., Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How You Can Make Yours Last, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.