Dr. John Gottman is a world-renowned researcher on marriage and relationships. He and his colleagues have probably done more ‘up close and personal’ research on the dynamics of marriage than anybody. In his book Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman describes how he has scientifically observed couples fight with each other, then tracked what happened in their marriages down the road. What follows isn’t some tabloid ‘gobbledy-gook.’ It’s real-world stuff. And it’s really hard to intake if it’s the kind of thing that’s happening between you and your wife.
There are four negative patterns that often sound familiar to fighting couples. Gottman says these four elements predict divorce. He calls them “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.” They are:
- Contempt:“Contempt is the best predictor of divorce because it’s really this air of superiority. You need respect in a relationship, not things like ‘I always know what you’re going to say.’” Mocking your spouse is the best predictor . . . it’s a ‘dis-respector.’ Gottman says, “It erodes the immune system of the wife/husband.”
- Criticism: Gottman says criticism is “really a way of fueling the attack, so you state your complaint as an attack on the other person.” He noted, “It’s not constructive, it winds up leading to an escalation of the conflict.”
- Defensiveness: Gottman explains people need to take responsibility for the problem and can say to the other person, “What’s your point? I mean, it makes some sense what you’re saying. Tell me more.” Dr. Gottman points out that defensiveness gets in the way of two people working as a team to figure out a solution.
- Stonewalling: Also known as the silent treatment. Gottman says, “The stonewaller is really trying to calm down and not make it worse, but when you’re faced with somebody who’s silent like that, you escalate. So, it’s a very disruptive pattern.” 80% of the time it’s men who stonewall.
And what do we fight about? What’s the main thing you argue about with your significant other? Dr. Gottman says the number one thing couples fight about is . . . nothing at all! I know that’s true at our house. I look back at the fights we’ve had and can’t even remember what they were about. I remember how awful I felt in the heat of battle. I remember the nasty things I said and she said. But the subject of the argument? Can’t recall it.
One of the marriage improvement exercises in Radical Mentoring is removing the word “you” from the vocabulary you use with your spouse. Gottman’s agrees . . . he says, “You never . . .” and “You always . . .” are accusatory, judgmental and never helpful. In fact, “anything insulting or anything that makes you seem like you’re superior” is debilitating. “Talk to me like an equal. You have issues, so do I” says Gottman.
Criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling are behaviors we choose to adapt. They’re habits . . . habits we can break through focused effort and self-discipline. We can even ask our spouses to help us recognize when we fall into them.
But to me, contempt is different. It’s deeper. Rolling your eyes when she talks, mocking her, making fun of her . . . these are deadly. Contempt is kryptonite for your marriage. If you feel contempt for your spouse, this is a big, big problem. Take it to the Lord. Talk to a trusted Christian mentor, pastor or friend. Get help to change your stinkin’ thinkin’ about your wife.
Remember, “I hate divorce says the Lord God of Israel.” Malachi 2:16a
Question: Does contempt, criticism, defensiveness and/or stonewalling show up when you and your spouse disagree? Will you get out ahead and stop this stuff in its tracks? Will you lean into the ‘Jesus in you’ and let more things go?