John Gottman, a well-known researcher and psychologist, analyzed the communication patterns of couples and their arguments. His study found that happy couples also have disagreements that lead to arguing in their relationship. He concluded that the conflicts themselves are not the problem; the main problem is how the couples argue. Based on these findings, Gottman pinpointed 4 common detrimental patterns that couples repeat during their argument. He named these patterns "The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
1. Criticism: In problematic arguments, the criticism is typically different than a complaint about an event, behavior, or situation. Here, couples make personal attacks. They criticize each other's personality traits, implying that there is something wrong with them.
Example: “I told you 40 times buy detergent on the way home. Why do you forget everything? I don't think you're forgetting; you are just selfish. You just choose your own comfort. You don't care about others.”
Unhealthy criticism—in which couples attack each other's personality traits—may lead the criticized partner to feel distant from the relationship. If criticism becomes too frequent, this also invites the second more detrimental pattern.
2. Contempt: Contempt can show itself in many forms during an argument. This includes mockery, name-calling, belittling, sighing, rolling eyes, and sarcasm. This pattern is the most detrimental to a relationship. In fact, it is described as one of the divorce predicators in Gottman’s study.
Contempt can sometimes arise from a sense of superiority. One individual sees themselves as superior to their spouse—perhaps they feel smarter, more organized, etc. In the long term, this pattern feeds on accumulated negative thoughts.
Example: “You think you’ll remember if you put it on your phone’s to-do list? (Eye rolling) You think that will solve your issues? (Sneering) Yeah, just put it on your phone, as if you’ll even check.”
This pattern is actually a form of disrespect. Out of every pattern, this is the most serious and deadly to a relationship. Contempt makes the spouse feel worthless, and in the long run, it may also cause physical distress. When contempt arises, it creates more conflict and it doesn’t help reconciliation.
3.Defensiveness: This pattern is a common way for one partner to blame the other. It is often the product of excessive criticism. The partner feels like they are under attack; as a result, they start defending themselves. The more defensive one partner becomes, the more the other partner criticizes and attacks.
The most common form of defensiveness is playing ‘the innocent victim.’ The individual complains that they are not understood, picked on, or unappreciated. This behavior tells their partner, “I'm not the problem, you are the problem.”
4. Stonewalling: This pattern often develops after criticism, defensiveness, and contempt. The person being attacked eventually withdraws from communication, closing themselves off and being unresponsive. They build a wall as a form of protection.
This pattern is usually more common in men and unfortunately, it is not easily stopped. Stonewalling makes the other party feel worthless, and like their efforts to communicate are futile.
Gottman’s research concludes that when "The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse” enter a couple’s communication at a high frequency, the couple's marriage is in danger. He also states that if the couple has failed repair attempts, an approximate 90% of marriages will result in divorce.
Couples Counseling to Improve Communication
Couples therapy (marriage counseling/premarital counseling) can be a great way to avoid a permanent separation and provide a solid foundation to deepen your current connection.
We offer couples counseling in Bucks County, PA and we help couple improve their communication. Our approach involves Gottman Method couples counseling and emotionally-focused couples therapy, which is one of the most empirically validated and effective therapies for improving distressed relationships.
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We offer both online therapy sessions and in-person couples therapy in Bucks County, PA. If you would like to schedule a session, please request an appointment.
If you have any other questions or you need additional information on couples counseling in Bucks County, PA please feel free to call, text and/or email us.
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