John Gottman has been the leading researcher on romantic couples–mostly marriages–for at least a decade. He has developed a technique for analyzing conversations that lets him predict with a lot of accuracy whether that couple will stay together during the next several years. One of the things he does is video a couple talking about a contentious subject and code the conversation for what he calls the four horsemen of the apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. The presence of these behaviors indicates that the relationship is being corroded.

Here’s a paraphrase of how he defines the four horsemen in The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy:

Criticism: Any statement that indicates that one partner thinks there is something wrong with the other, such as “What’s wrong with you?” or “You always blah-blah-blah.” Note that what he calls criticism is different from complaining. In a complaint, one partner says that they didn’t like something that the other did. For a complaint to become criticism, it needs a barb. A generalization like “You always…” or “You never…” will do, as will making the complaint about a character flaw, rather than a specific incident, like “Why would anyone do that?”

Defensiveness: When one partner acts as if the other is attacking them. Instead of directly responding to a statement, for example, the defensive partner might respond with a “counter-attack” like “What are you complaining about? You’re worse than I am!”

Contempt: Any statement or action which implies you are a better person than your partner, like mockery or eye-rolling. There is a facial expression for contempt, which Gottman also codes for. This is a version of  the sneer, from

Stonewalling: When one partner removes themselves in some way from the conversation. This can be by leaving or ceasing to respond. Often this is combined with attempts to not show emotion on the face. This is the worst of the horsemen, just ahead of contempt. It seems to be quite difficult for a relationship with this kind of behavior to remain viable.

Gottman says that some amount of four-horsemen behaviors (except contempt, which apparently never happens in happy couples) are inevitable, and that what is critical is not that they don’t happen, but that they are repaired by soothing, softening, or meta-communicating.

Family therapy got started when the grandparents of the field, interested in cybernetics–the science of self-regulating systems–started studying communication in families. Some of the more interesting ideas they came up with were the three progressively more problematic kinds of contradiction. This is a summary of Virginia Satir’s version of those contradictions, from Conjoint Family Therapy:

Simple contradiction: This is when a person says two things that contradict each other straightforwardly, as when someone might say, “I love you but I don’t love you.” This kind of contradiction consists of assertions that are incompatible, but at least out in the open, in an easily decodable way. That means that the receiver of the message can easily comment on the contradiction, saying “I don’t understand what you mean. You didn’t make sense to me just then.”

Paradoxical (or incongruent) communication: A paradox is a special kind of contradiction, where the incompatible statements exist on different “logical levels.” That is, one of the statements is part of the context of the other statement. These are significantly more difficult to decode and comment on. The two logical levels in human communication are usually verbal and non-verbal behavior, where the non-verbal behavior is the context for the verbal. For example (from p.83) “A says, ‘I hate you,’ and smiles.” If A had said “I hate you” with an angry look on their face, that would be congruent, but what does “I hate you” mean in the context of a smile? This is more confusing than the simple contradiction, both because it is more difficult to track the two levels of communication simultaneously, and because we have unspoken social norms against commenting about how someone is speaking. Consequently, it takes more awareness and bravery to question the speaker’s intent when they present you with this kind of contradictory communication. (Satir calls paradoxical communication “incongruent communication.”) Being able to metacommunicate, or comment on the communication going on, is the major tool of the psychotherapist. We don’t usually know it, but this skill is the main thing we go to therapists for.

The double bind: The double bind is a special kind of paradoxical communication that was first laid out in Watzlawick and colleagues’ Pragmatics of Human Communication. A double bind is a paradox with two additional rules, giving four total requirements:

1) A verbal statement

2) A contradictory non-verbal context

3) A rule that you are not allowed to metacommunicate

4) A rule that you are not allowed to leave the field

This happens to people all the time. Children, especially, mercilessly, unconsciously, are put in this position a lot because they are not in a position to leave their parents “field.” They are completely subject to their parents on every level.

Here’s an example: A parent, obviously stressed out, tense, and in pain for whatever reason, says to their child, “I love you.” This puts the child into a double bind, because the statement is contradicted by the “I don’t love you” expressed by the parents’ body language and facial expression. That’s 1) and 2). Third is that the child can’t comment on the contradiction because they don’t have the tools, and even if they did, and said something like, “Mom, I hear you saying that you love me but it doesn’t really seem like you love me right now. It seems like you’re having other feelings,” the child would almost certainly be punished in some way for being insubordinate, for questioning the parent’s love, for questioning the parent’s word, for making the parent feel uncomfortable. Fourth is that the child is not allowed to leave the field. That is, even if they had the communication tools, the awareness, and the bravery, they have no where else to go if they are rejected by the parent. Their lives are dependent on the love and support of the parent. They are stuck in the field. To cope, they “learn” one or both of the following:

I am not lovable. My parent knows this, and I have figured it out, but at least they are pretending that they love me, which keeps me alive, so I’ll go along with the pretense that they love me.

I may be lovable, but love feels awful. Still, it’s the best thing available.

Then the child grows up and, having their own children, perpetuate the process, being a pretending-to-be-lovable parent with awful-feeling love to give to the next generation. Not only that, but they develop adaptations to this way of living that look like DSM-diagnosable Mental Disorder conditions.

Metacommunication and congruent communication: Notice that metacommunication is the key out of all of these situations. In the case of a true double bind, you might need the help of someone else’s (a therapist’s or friend’s) metacommunication, but metacommunication is still the key. Someone needs to stand up and say, “I’m confused! Can we slow down here and talk about what we’re talking about? What can you say to me right now that your body language and facial expression will agree with?”