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Four Communication Styles that Predict Divorce

What if we could predict, with 90 percent accuracy, whether or not your marriage will end just by assessing communication between you and your spouse? Thanks to John and Julie Gottman, we can.

The Gottmans’ research found that nearly 70 percent of conflicts in couple relationships are unresolvable, but how couples manage their conflicts could mean the difference between remaining together and separating.

Through observing married couples and looking at a range of factors surrounding communication, the results were staggering. There were 4 negative communication patterns that were common amongst the couples whose relationships ended in divorce; these patterns are known as The Four Horsemen.

Sound familiar? The Four Horsemen is a metaphor illustrating the apocalypse in the New Testament. These times of conquest, war, hunger, and ultimately, death, are representative of the communication styles that predict the end of a romantic relationship.

The Four Horsemen

1) Criticism

Offering a critique or voicing a complaint to your partner isn’t analogous with this first of the four horsemen, criticism. Critiques and complaints can be expressed in a loving, productive way, and they center on an issue outside of your partner’s being, like action or behavior. Criticism, on the other hand, is an ad hominem attack. In essence, you are dismantling your partner’s character.

Learning the difference between a complaint and a criticism is essential in efforts to protect your relationship:

Complaint: There’s still a pile of your clothes sitting on the kitchen table. I need you to put them away, please, so I can put dinner on the table for the family.

Criticism: The clothes on the table have been there for 3 days! You’re so lazy and selfish! You never think of me or anyone in this family! You only care about yourself!

Criticism can leave your partner feeling attacked, rejected, and wounded. Often times, couples then find themselves in an escalation pattern where criticism reappears more frequently and the intensity is greater, which, unfortunately, can lead to the other four horsemen communication styles, like contempt.

2) Contempt

Contempt is the second horsemen and known as the single greatest predictor of divorce. This communication style includes mocking your partner with sarcasm and ridicule, calling them names, mimicking them, or using disrespectful body language, like eye-rolling. Contempt causes your partner to feel detested, insignificant, and worthless.

It goes even further than criticism, assuming a position of moral superiority over your partner. It sends the message that “I am better than you, and I don’t respect you.”

Ah, late again! SHOCKING! I don’t know why I expect an idiot like you to be able to tell time! Most 5-year-olds can tell the time better than you! I don’t have time for another child! You’re disgusting and pathetic! And you wonder why I never want to have sex with you!?

Contempt is the result of negative thoughts and feelings that have accumulated and have been simmering for an extended period of time, and it’s the most destructive of all of the four horsemen. It must be eliminated.

3) Defensiveness

Defensiveness is the third horseman, and typically, it is a response to criticism. When we feel unfairly criticized or accused, we offer excuses, hoping our partner will back down, and furthermore, we blame our partner instead. This method is almost never successful because overall, it says we don’t take our partner’s concerns seriously, we don’t take responsibility for our mistakes, and we think our partner is actually the problem.

I know I said I’d stop at the store for groceries on my way home from work, but I was too tired, okay?! I had a day full of meetings, and you know how busy work is for me right now! Why didn’t you just go to the store?

While it’s reasonable to defend yourself when under attack, defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if your partner doesn’t back down. Offering excuses and blaming your partner doesn’t allow for healthy conflict management.

4) Stonewalling

The fourth horseman is stonewalling. This response to contempt transpires when we withdraw or shut down. Rather than continuing interaction with our partner and confronting the issues, we, instead, turn away from our partner, act busy, or become engrossed in compulsive or distracting behaviors.

These evasive maneuvers are typically the result of becoming too overwhelmed to continue engaging. When we become physiologically flooded, we aren’t able to have a rational discussion with our partner.

What Now?

While the presence of The Four Horsemen is a pretty solid predictor of divorce, there is so much hope for couples who are experiencing these communication styles within their relationship. It’s possible to learn better forms of communication and conflict resolution, and couples therapy is an ideal environment for these shifts to begin taking place. Learning the antidotes that combat these four horsemen is important, but that, my friends, is a topic for another blog. Stay tuned!

Andrea R. Johnson, MA, LMFT is the co-owner of the Friendswood Center for Couples and Families. She has been in practice for nearly 10 years, and works with older teens, young adults, and couples in Friendswood and surrounding areas.

A New Start. A New Journey. A New You. How the right therapy, and the right therapist can help get you there by David Nutter, MA, LAMFT

New starts in life often happen when people decide to engage therapy. Whenever I meet new clients as individuals, couples, or even families, I ask them what their goals are in therapy. For some, they have not been asked about what they need, want, or even prefer in their lives for a long time. For others, it often feels that they have never been heard at all, let alone asked. What happens when you go to therapy? What type of model and style of therapy will the person you see provide? What is their level of formal training, how well attuned are they to meet your needs and do they rely on any other resources other than their self-perceived competency? Understanding how much someone knows about your particular issue(s) is a critical step in selecting the type of therapist and style of therapy you will engage.

For example, as I write this article I am thinking of the many different styles of therapy available. I can immediately think of 11 different styles: structural family therapy, strategic therapy, the Milan systemic approach, the Mental Research Institute (MRI) approach, Satir’s communication approach, symbolic-experiential family therapy, intergenerational family therapy, collaborative therapy, narrative therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and solution-focused therapy. That’s a lot of different styles of therapy, all with empirical research associated with their model and experts in each field.

Added to this list of styles of therapy are the therapists themselves. Who are you going to see and what you are likely to experience is largely dependent on the type of education they have and the experience they have with others. There is a vast difference in the education requirements to become a life coach, mental health counselor or a marriage and family therapist (MFT). There are differences in approaches and emphasis, even within the same style/model of therapy. You and the particular issues you bring to therapy may be weighing on you. The therapist fortunate enough to have you as a client should work as hard on your issues as you do.

There are resources such as books, workbooks, films, music and other sources that might resonate with you that are not particularly useful or preferred by others. You have decided to make a new start and that new start needs the support of the developing relationship of trust you are building with your therapist of choice. That relationship is essential for discussing what you want to achieve and the ways you plan to address the changes or goals you want for yourself and your relationships. Your new journey starts with a decision about what you want to experience in the future. Often this gets accomplished by a review of the past and current life experiences you have survived or thrived from. The therapist caring deeply about your experiences and your strengths will celebrate what you have achieved and where you are going. Aspects that you bring to the therapy effort are elements of the way you might describe yourself—the many facets of who you are. When people describe their experiences in therapy, I hope they include feeling heard, challenged, respected, validated, encouraged and celebrated. Their experience should feel welcomed like a friend, with a serious focus in a nurturing manner. Sometimes people cry, reflect and reconsider critical directions or attitudes they have adopted. Sometimes they laugh and release tension in a light-hearted way. New beginnings are often encouraged by a therapist going the extra mile along side of you, so you can keep going more miles, confidently forward. Welcome to your new start.

About the Author:

David Nutter is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist at the St. George Center For Couples & Families. His career experience includes military service, management and executive positions and international business consulting. He received his undergraduate degree from BYU and his Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy from Northcentral University, a COAMFTE approved program. David was inducted into two honor societies for academic and clinical excellence and is enrolled in NCU’s PhD/ MFT program. During his Master’s program he was mentored by Steve Allred, with a broad range of client ages and issues. He served as the SGPD Chaplain (board certified) to reduce the impact to personnel and citizens from significant trauma experiences. He is adjunct faculty at DSU. He has lived in every U.S. time zone and abroad, and appreciates diversity. David is married to his “girlfriend” Diane. Together, they call their 7 children, their spouses/partners and 5 grandchildren their immediate family.