They were the ideal couple: he, a successful businessman; she, beautiful and creative. We sat at their table after a lovely meal. More coffee was offered—then it happened. “You can’t do that! It’s been sitting far too long! It’ll have gone bitter by now!”—words spoken, not instructively, but in a scorn-laced outburst. It stood out all the more for he had been nothing but gracious all evening. It left more of an aftertaste than the coffee did.
I was reminded of the incident years later when reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.He quotes psychologist John Gottman who studies couples and their interactions. After analysing an hour of conversation on any subject between husband and wife, and isolating many indicators, he is able to predict with 95% accuracy whether or not they will be married in 15 years or not. Watching only 15 minutes still allowed him to predict with 90% accuracy. In fact, watching only 3 minutes of a conversation contains enough clues.
That’s phenomenal—especially when you take into account that when they gave the same tapes of conversations to 200 psychiatrists and marriage counsellors they had only a 54% success rate of predicting success or failure—little better than tossing a coin. But Gottman is able to narrow it down even further. Amidst all the welter of data about a marriage there are four key factors—Four Horsemen he calls them—that are signs that a marriage is in a critical situation.
The Four Horsemen are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt.
Criticism—“You don’t appreciate me”, “You never do anything about this place”, “You’re stupid/ugly/lazy.” Personal generalised sweeping statements that aren’t designed to be helpful, just to hurt.
Defensiveness—It’s often the response to criticism, you know how it goes, you’re in the wrong, but you won’t admit it. She says “You never take the bin out” and you retort with “I would do, but you never put anything in it, just leave it lying around here looking like a tip.” “You’re always in a foul mood”—“That’s ’cos I’m married to you.” And so on—excuses and blame-shifting are the order of the day.
Stonewalling—Another response to either legitimate issues, or to illegitimate criticism. There is no spitefulness, just a tuning out. 85% of time it’s the husband. He hears the issue and refuses to engage—sighs and changes channel, or walks out of the room or house. It says, “I don’t rate your opinion, I don’t rate this as an issue worth my time or effort to solve. I’m done.” It’s unspoken contempt.
Contempt—The insult, the name-call, a sneer, the mocking taunt, the rolling of eyes, scorn, treating your spouse with disdain in front of family or friends. They all communicate disgust. The aim is simply to belittle, to score points.
Of the four, Gottman says contempt is the worst. You might have thought it would be criticism. Criticism is about what a person does, and will cause them to react defensively, but contempt displays disgust for who a person actually is. And that’s what I saw that night around the coffee pot. It came back to me because I recently heard they were divorced.
Where’s your marriage at? Do any of the horsemen inhabit your home?
The good news is that it isn’t too late. Hard work will need to be done—the hard work of repentance and forgiveness. But we need to start with the vertical relationship between us and God—with repentance and forgiveness from Jesus—then we find him enabling us to repent and forgive each other on a horizontal level, and our marriages transformed and relationships healed.