four horsemen of the apocalypse

It is very important to be able to complain in your relationship. The sooner the better, in most cases, before it festers. There are more and less skillful ways to bring a complaint, of course, but do the best you can. If your complaint crosses the line into criticism, though, you are doing something that, according to John Gottman, is toxic to your relationship. Criticism is one of his “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” for relationships. Everyone does it, but the less the better, and some kind of repair is in order when you do.

Criticism is a negative, global statement, often about someone’s character or history. It brings out defensiveness (another of the Four Horsemen) because it is an attack. Any complaint can easily be turned into a criticism. Here are some of Gottman’s observations about how we do it:

Start a complaint with “You always…”

Start a complaint with “You never…”

Start a complaint with “The problem with you is…”

After a complaint, ask “How can you treat me this way?”

After a complaint, ask “Why would you do a thing like that?”

After a complaint, ask “What is wrong with you?”

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.