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Why Marriages Go Bad: The 4 Horsemen of a Relationship Apocalypse

John Gottman can listen to a couple for 5 minutes and determine, with 91% accuracy, whether they’ll divorce. He was featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.

Gottman’s researched marriage for over 40 years and couples that attend his workshops have half the relapse rate that standard therapy provides.

His book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is excellent and rich with information. In it he debunks a lot of myths about marriage, explains why marriages go bad and what can be done about it.

The Four Horsemen

How can he tell who will split up? There are a number of indicators but at the core of Gottman’s research are “ The Four Horsemen.” These are the four things that indicate a marriage apocalypse is on its way:

  • Criticism – Complaints are fine. Criticism is more global — it attacks the person, not their behavior. They didn’t take out the garbage because they forgot, but because they’re a bad person.
  • Contempt – “…name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. In whatever form, contempt – the worst of the four horsemen – is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you’re disgusted with him or her.”
  • Defensiveness – “…defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, ‘The problem isn’t me, it’s you.’ Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so deadly.”
  • Stonewalling – Tuning out. Disengaging. This doesn’t just remove the person from the conflict, it ends up removing them, emotionally, from the relationship.

What was the biggest insight about marriage? 

What surprised me the most? Gottman’s research reveals that major differences of opinion don’t destroy marriages, it’s how a couple deals with them.

69% of a couple’s problems are perpetual. These problems don’t go away yet many couples keep arguing about them year after year:

Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind – but it can’t be done…

Read more: Barking Up The Wrong Tree

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