Marriage Monday: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Part 1

Marriages come with a variety of problems. Complications in marital relationships range from the mundane, minor annoyances to matters that are extremely serious, if not toxic. Dr. John Gottman has noted four specific interactions that take place within marriages that are detrimental unless they are alleviated. He calls these “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, and with good reason.  When these horsemen ride into a marriage it is like cyanide for the relationship.

The four horsemen are:

  1. Criticism
  2. Contempt
  3. Defensiveness
  4. Stonewalling

Every marriage has its share of complaints. I have yet to meet anyone that has been married longer than a minute that says, “My partner is perfect in every way.” Marriages are made up of people, and people make mistakes. It is normal, and healthy, for partners to issue complaints periodically to their partner. It should be noted that a complaint and a critical remark are miles apart.

A complaint is making note of some a specific action that your spouse did wrong or failed to do. Criticism, on the other hand, is a much more global statement that attacks a person at their core; it is an assault on who they are. It impugns their very character or personhood.

When my wife says, “Hey, you were suppose to take out the trash last night” that is a complaint. This stated as a criticism would look like, “Why do you always forget everything? I hate always having to catch your slack around here.” It is pretty easy to spot the difference, but let’s have a few more examples anyway.

When a spouse says, “I thought we agreed not to give our son chocolate. Why did you let him eat a whole Hershey bar?” This is a complaint. Had they said, “Why is it impossible for you to abide by the rules we set? You just don’t know what is best for children”, it would be a criticism.

Let’s have one more example, just to sharpen our eye between a criticism and complaint. “I thought we agreed to spend our tax return on a new television. Why did you spend some of it elsewhere?” Here we have a complaint, and a nice one at that. The critical version of this would be something like, “We said that we were going to get a new television with our tax return, but as always, you were selfish and spent it elsewhere.”

John Gottman states, “To turn any complaint into a criticism, just add my favorite line: What’s wrong with you.” This is the distinguishing feature between offering a complaint and being critical. Criticism always attacks and demeans the other person.

Some couples have never considered the distinction between a complaint and criticism, but more often than not, most couples do not realize that criticism has come galloping into their marriage.

It is highly important that we communicate with our spouses and let them know when there is a problem, disappointment, or a time when we are let down, but when criticism starts to become a part of these conversations, it is time to make an adjustment.

Criticism has no place in a healthy marriage, though it is often present. We need to examine our relationships to see if we are critical of our spouse, because criticism paves the road for the other three horsemen to come riding in.

Proverbs 15:1-2
“A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare.”

Tune in for part 2 next Monday.

Walk good. Live wise. Be blessed.


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