By Barbara Martin
The 4 Horsemen of the marriage apocalypse
QUESTION: How do I stop resenting my spouse for things they have or have not done?
My husband and I have been married for 45 years. We have certainly had our share of conflict during this time, whether it was on how to raise our children, how we wanted to spend money or who was responsible for taking out the garbage. These seem like small things, but what many of us know is these small things can add up to bigger things if they are stored up and not dealt with.
Dr. John Gottman is a marriage researcher and has written numerous books on marriage. He says there are four negative interactions that, if done on a regular basis, are lethal to a healthy relationship. He calls these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because of the damage they can do to a marriage.
The first Horseman: Criticism
In most relationships, there will be complaints. A complaint is simply about the specific action that your spouse did or didn’t do. Criticism is broader: It adds to the complaint negative words or thoughts regarding your spouse’s character or personality.
For instance, if my husband left a glass on the floor after I asked him to put it away, and I hit it with my foot later in the night and cause a spill, a complaint might be, “Do you remember I asked you to put your glass away? I kicked it last night and water went everywhere. Please take your glass to the kitchen after you finish with it.” A criticism would be, “I kicked over the glass that I asked you to put away last night. Why are you so forgetful? You do this over and over. I guess I will just need to do this for you since you can’t ever remember to do it.”
These kinds of interactions happen in marriage, so I don’t want you to think your marriage is in trouble when these occasionally happen — but when it’s pervasive, it can lead to the next Horseman.
The second Horseman: Contempt
Contempt is fueled by holding onto and actually feeding resentment, which then moves into disgust. This can happen if a couple’s differences aren’t addressed and resolved. There are many ways to show contempt: sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling, mocking and even hostile joking.
Gottman says, “In whatever form, contempt — the worst of the Four Horsemen — is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It is virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your spouse is getting the message that you’re disgusted with him or her.”
The third Horseman: Defensiveness
Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your spouse by basically saying the problem is “you, not me.” There is no backing down and no apology. Then the conflict often escalates. Let’s go back to the issue with the glass of water. If I tell my husband that because the water glass was left on the floor I accidentally bumped it and water spilled, and he responds with something like, “Well, you really should watch where you’re going,” you can hear defensiveness and contempt in his response.
The fourth Horseman: Stonewalling
In marriages where criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, one spouse will begin to tune out. The person that stonewalls acts as though what the spouse is saying isn’t worth listening to. This might look like one spouse leaving the room or just disengaging from the other. By turning away or tuning the other out, the spouse avoids a “fight” but the health of the marriage is compromised.
As you read this and become aware of how you and your spouse interact, it might be good to assess whether any or all of these negative interactions are pervasive in your marriage. If these are present, it might be good to ask yourself, “What is marriage for?” Tim Keller says it is for “helping each other to become our future glory-selves, the new creations that God will eventually make us.” If this is true, then we see that the above interactions that feed resentment are counterproductive to the true mission of marriage.
Next month, I will walk through some ways to build the important component of friendship into a marriage.
Barbara Martin, LPC, LMFT, clinical coordinator of the Counseling Center at Reformed Theological Seminary, has her own private practice at RTS.