Four Things That Could Be Hurting Your Marriage This Year

We all know what makes for a good marriage; a climate of grace, good communication, healthy disagreements resolved in ways that honor the other, forgiveness, empathy, good companionship and intimate sex. But are you as keen to spot the things that could be slowly destroying your marriage?

Most couples can usually intuitively tell that things aren’t right but often can’t name with specificity what is hurting their relationship. For more than four decades, John Gottman has done some significant research on what makes relationships work and what destroys those same relationships in his “Love Lab” located in Seattle, Washington. Through interviews, monitoring blood pressure, heart rates, amount of sweat and video-taped interactions between couples, Gottman and his associates have uncovered some obvious but illusive conclusions. Here is one:

The determining factor in whether wives feel satisfied with the sex, romance and passion in their marriages is, by 70%, the quality of the couple’s friendship. For men, the determining factor is, by 70%, the quality of the couple’s friendship. So men and women come from the same planet after all (p. 19)

Four Marriage Defeaters

Since friendship is so important, Gottman has sought to find out what hinders and helps couples develop that friendship or what he calls “attunement.” In one section, he specifies four things that negatively impact the friendship. He calls them “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.” They are:

  1. Criticism: Gottman says that there is a difference between a complaint and a criticism. All marriages have complaints. It’s when a complaint turns into a criticism that indicates something serious is going wrong. A complaint focuses on a specific behavior. “I’m really upset that you didn’t call to let me know you were going to be late. Going forward, can you please let me know?” That is a complaint. It has 3 parts: 1. How you feel (I’m really upset); 2. About a specific behavior (You did not call to let me know you were going to be late) 3. And here is what I need/want/prefer (Could you please call going forward?).  Gottman defines the difference between a complaint and criticism: In contrast, a criticism is global and expresses negative feelings or opinions about the other’s character or personality (p.33). Criticism is an attack on one’s character. It is much more severe in its conclusions. It sounds like this, “You are always late. You never give me a heads up. You are always just thinking about your schedule and your needs!” Can you see how criticism can destroy your marriage?
  2. Contempt: Gottman says that “the second horseman arises from a sense of superiority over one’s partner. It is a form of disrespect.” He goes on to say that “sarcasm,, eye-rolling, mockery and hostile humor are all forms of contempt. In whatever form, contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict rather than reconciliation (p.34).”
  3. Defensiveness: While it may make sense that you would want to defend yourself in the face of criticism and contempt, Gottman says that “research shows that this approach rarely has the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, ‘The problem isn’t me, it’s you.’” There is a difference between healthy disagreement which leads to helpful resolution and Gottman’s definition of defensiveness. He spends most of his time helping couples engage with one another.
  4. Stonewalling: the fourth horseman, stonewalling. is when one or both give up and just walk away and go silent. Gottman says, “criticism, contempt, and defensiveness don’t always gallop into a home in strict order. They function more like a relay match--handing the baton off to each other over and over again if the couple can't put a stop to it (p.37). The final horseman indicates that the couple has stopped trying and is moving away from one another. Stonewalling usually arrives later in a marriage. That’s why you may not see it in a newly married couple but you can spot it in a couple who has been married for a longer period of time.”

The Four Horsemen and James 4

John Gottman has done countless marriages a big favor through his research and writings. I have seen this in my own marriage as well as others I have counseled and taught. His observations bring specificity and concreteness to what thoughts and behaviors are at work in a marriage that is not growing. These observations alone can help a couple move away from letting the four horseman into their relationship. And yet, Scripture gives us an even deeper diagnosis. In James 4:1-3, it says that we fight and quarrel because of “desires that battle within us.” Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling are tied to deeper motives that are driven by a heart that has strayed from God. What needs to be addressed includes thinking and behavior but also matters of core commitments. This is where the grace of God breaks in and rescues us from ourselves and others from us!

Gottman and the Gospel

What are we to make of this? Gottman helps us discern what specific thoughts and behaviors look like when a marriage is either growing or dying. These insights can be wonderfully freeing for the more relationally obtuse! And yet, the Scriptures gives us more. In the Bible, we meet a God of grace who treats us in the exact opposite ways from the four horsemen. Jesus comes to seek and save. Romans 5:8 says that, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He comes to redeem what is most broken in us; hearts that have strayed from God. When that takes place, there is a whole new dimension to life and change that enables us to follow Jesus’ example and to say no to criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Instead, we can move towards one another with gentleness, encouragement and grace because this is how Jesus, our Bridegroom, has moved towards you and me.

For further reading about John Gottman and his work, the following book will serve as a helpful introduction.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane


Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.