“And they lived happily ever after…”

This sentence is often used as the closing line of love stories or fairy tales, which sadly, do not always come true in the real lives of married couples.

Research shows that in the United States alone, around 41 percent of first marriages end in divorce and 60 percent of second marriages end in a similar situation. In Indonesia, statistics also indicate an increasing trend toward divorce, with 365,630 cases of divorce recorded in 2016, compared to 276,790 in 2011. Various factors such as infidelity, lack of commitment and marital conflicts were found to be the major contributor to the break ups.

In regards to the factors influencing the rising divorce rate, Dr. John Gottman, a leading researcher and expert in marital relationships found that it was not conflict alone that predicted the failure or success of a relationship, but rather how the conflict was communicated and managed that mattered most. In his study, he concluded that there were four styles of communication that consistently predicted the end (or the survival) of a romantic relationship.

By observing the way a couple communicates in a 15 minute discussion about their disagreement, Dr. Gottman and his team were able to predict the outcome of the relationship with 90 percent accuracy. He called the four destructive patterns of communication the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. They are:



The first horseman is called criticism. It is an assault on another person at the core of their character as a person. Different than a critique or constructive feedback focusing on the behavior of the person, criticism indicates to another person that there is something inherently wrong with them. Messages with the “You” statement such as “You always”, “You should”, “You never” are common examples of criticisms.

Criticism of another person usually makes them feel under attack, rejected, hurt and perpetuates a defensive stance. When criticism becomes prevalent, it usually starts to escalate, getting bigger in intensity and frequency, hence laying the way to the second and deadlier horseman: contempt.


Contempt goes far beyond criticism and implies a message of “I don’t respect you” to a partner. Contempt manifests itself in the form of treating others with disrespect, ridicule, mocking, sarcasm, name-calling, mimicking and degrading body language like sneering and eye-rolling. Statements such as “You fool, how many times do I have to tell you not to do this. You’re so pathetic, I don’t want to deal with a grownup baby,” are examples of contempt.

Couples that are contemptuous to each other cannot see any positive qualities in their partner, and cannot maintain the positive bond in their relationship. Contempt is actually quoted as the most destructive of the four and serves as greatest predictor of divorce.


The third horseman is defensiveness, and it usually appears as a reaction to criticism. It takes the form of fighting back against criticism with a similar reaction, blaming your partner, or playing the innocent victim so the criticizing partner will draw back.

Defensiveness is seldom successful in achieving the goal of making the other partner understand their position or yield. It gives a message to the criticizing partner that their concern is not taken seriously, or that the defensive one will not take responsibility for the situation.


Stonewalling is the last of the horsemen and is the typical response to contempt. This happens when the listener withdraws from the encounter, shuts down, stops listening and responding — as if creating a stonewall between the two. This can also be an act of walking out of the room, tuning out, mentally distracting themselves or behaviors other than facing the confrontation head-on.

Stonewalling is not easy to stop, as it is an actual physical reaction, as our system is physiologically flooded, and the body engages in a fight, flight or freeze response, due to the perceived attack from the partner. Under this condition, no one is in ideal states to talk about the matter in a calm and logical manner. The stonewalled partner needs to come back to a neutral and balanced physiological state to be able to generate rational responses.

So, what are the alternatives?

Every couple, even the happiest and most solid ones, has experienced bad days where the destructive styles are inevitable in their interactions. The good news is each of the four horsemen comes with an antidote, a set of behaviors that can be learned and applied as an alternative way of relating to others.

Use the “I” statement

The antidote for criticism is to use a gentle startup instead of a harsh one. Instead of attacking the partner’s character, one can raise his/her concern by formulating a gentle start-up. Gentle start-ups begin by asking oneself what emotions, longing and needs are not being met in that situation, instead of what the partner does wrong (What do I feel? What do I need? What is my longing?).

The best way to express this by using the “I” statement, instead of the “You” statement. Instead of saying, “You are always so selfish, you just focus on yourself”, try to say “I’m feeling left out and not really part of the conversation. Can we talk about how my work was today?”.

Basically, a soft start-up is stating one’s concern without blaming the partner, and expressing one’s feelings and needs instead.

Convey appreciation and respect

As for contempt, the remedy is to build an atmosphere of appreciation that leads to positive interactions in the couple. Remembering a partner’s positive qualities, focusing on his/her strength and regularly showing appreciation and affection for them are the keys to do this. The more appreciation and respect are expressed, the more likely a positive culture is built, which acts as a shield to negative and contemptuous feelings toward each other.

Apologize and take responsibility

For defensiveness, often an automatic reaction to criticism, the solution is to take responsibility for the situation where one is wrong. Taking responsibility means accepting the criticizing partner’s complaint, trying to understand where they are coming from, offering an apology for any wrongdoing and admitting one’s own contribution to the problem.  

Instead of saying, “I don’t have time to call the plumber this morning. I’m busy. Why don’t you do that!” one could say, “I’m sorry that I forgot to call them. I’ve been so busy, but it’s not an excuse. Let me do it now”. It prevents the conflict from escalating further and paves the way to finding a compromise between the partners.

Take your pause

The remedy for stonewalling is to focus more on dealing with body or physiological arousal, which happens when a threat is perceived by a person. In this situation, it is important to bring the body back to a calm state, by doing physiological self-soothing, and not forcing discussion to find a solution to the problem at that very moment.  

It can be done by taking a break from a heated argument or from the situation that is threatening or finding distracting and comforting activities to bring the body back into a balanced state. Postponing the discussion until the emotion has passed, walking out of the room, having a walk, taking a deep breath, or listening to relaxing music can be choice activities for self-soothing.  

As for any other new skills, applying the antidote for the four horsemen is not always successful and may feel unnatural at the first. Nevertheless, continued attempts usually make it easier and gradually they will be part of a couple’s daily interactions. The more a couple puts the antidote into their daily interactions, the closer they get to the closing line of a fairy tale: to live happily ever after. (kes)


This article can also be read on The Jakarta Post

Leave a Reply