A year ago, my husband and I hit a crisis point in our marriage. After more than 20 years together, we had lost sight of what our priorities were when it came to our relationship. Years of hurt feelings and resentment had culminated in a blowout argument that resulted in me uttering words I never expected to come out of my mouth. “I want a divorce” was the reason we found ourselves sitting in a therapist’s office a week after our disastrous conversation.
While I knew I loved my husband, my anger and hurt feelings led me to believe that we were beyond repair. We’d lost our way somewhere between midnight feedings and braces, and I wasn’t sure we could put our marriage back in order. And though I was willing to take the steps necessary to try to heal our hearts, I knew one thing for sure: I was not about to pay money to criticize each other’s faults in front of a stranger. We could do that at home for free.
But hand in hand, we took steps toward more open communication and finding respect for one another. With the help of our therapist, we were able to talk openly about our feelings without reproach, and for the first time in a long time, we were honest about how we made each other feel on a day-to-day basis. And it was eye-opening, humbling, and at times, refreshing.
Though our issues did not stem from infidelity, we’ve both come to realize there were four other men crowding us out in our marriage. These four men were pushing us away from each other, and each had bad habits and actions that put us on a collision course for marital disaster.
I’m talking about the Four Horsemen, as described by the Gottman Institute.
According to the Gottman Institute, the Four Horsemen are a biblical reference often used to describe impending apocalypse or disaster. While they traditionally represent conquest, war, hunger, and death, Clinical Psychologist John Gottman draws the analogy that there are Four Horsemen concepts that can indicate a troubled marriage as well. In his analogy, the marital Four Horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
And each of those Four Horsemen was a once-unwanted guest in our everyday interactions with each other.
Gottman says there’s a vast difference between a complaint and criticism. A complaint is a statement about a specific issue where criticism is an outright attack on your partner. In therapy, my husband and I learned to make statements like, “I was hurt that you went for a run without me because I thought we agreed to do that together” rather than “You only think about yourself.” While it sounds simple, learning to complain and not criticize is key to the long-term health of your relationship.
I call this the “Pissing Contest” Horseman. When we display contempt, we are openly being mean or disrespectful to our partners. For my husband and me, we became adept at one-upping each other when it came to describing our bad days at work or daily trials with kids. More often than not, I found myself listing the ways his day wasn’t as hard as mine because he got to head off to an office job without the distraction of kids during his workday. Contempt slowly invades your everyday communication until all that’s left are hurt feelings and resentment. “Contempt is the single biggest predictor of divorce and it must be eliminated,” says Gottman.
This Horseman is pretty self-explanatory. When we are hurt or feel attacked, we come out swinging with excuses or hurtful words to protect ourselves. But excuses only serve to make our partners feel that we aren’t taking their requests or feelings to heart. And in short, defensiveness passes the blame for your actions to your partner. Thus, nothing is ever resolved. This has been the hardest Horseman to kick out of our marriage and learning to phrase our feelings so that we both feel valued has not been easy. We are still working on it.
How many times have you engrossed yourself in your phone to avoid a difficult conversation with your spouse? Or given your spouse the silent treatment when they tried to engage you in a conversation? That’s stonewalling, and it is the Horseman that shows up after the other three have been around for a while. Tuning your spouse out is a habit that can prove very hard to break. And the continued act of stonewalling, or avoiding the truth in your marriage, is the biggest barrier to real communication between couples. It can be hard, especially when there is hurt to work through, but bringing that wall down is crucial.
Therapy saved our marriage, and while we are better than we were last year, we both know that effective communication takes hard work and practice. There are times that communicating properly feels foreign and almost unnatural but we are finding that employing what we’ve learned in therapy is producing great returns.
And therapy is helping us kick the Four Horsemen out of our marriage for good.