The Four Horseman of the (Marriage) Apocalypse
Developing healthier communication habits
The last thing Tom wanted that Sunday morning was another argument with his wife. Nevertheless, he found himself deep in a heated disagreement with Sarah.
In the time it took him to get a second cup of coffee, Tom’s sharp words triggered an old wound and tapped an unresolved tension with his wife. Frustrated but determined to stay on task, Tom left the room and returned to his sermon notes.
After 15 minutes of struggling to focus, Tom walked back into the kitchen and said, “Sarah … sweetheart, I’m sorry I said what I did and got you upset again. Please forgive me.”
Looking at him incredulously, Sarah said, “No, you’re not sorry. You just want to make sure you have an anointing when you preach this morning. Isn’t that the real reason you’re apologizing?”
With the argument still simmering, they were soon driving the kids to church for another Sunday morning of worship and ministry.
This conversation might sound extreme to some. But most couples who have spent any time in marriage and church leadership can relate.
The tone and tenor of conversations in marriage reveal much about the condition of the relationship. Words convey relational intimacies and deficiencies as few other indicators can.
Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Words often reveal whether a relationship is growing or dying.
Psychologist John Gottman, a leading researcher in marriage communication, has documented the interactions of some 300 couples over decades of longitudinal studies. As a result, Gottman can predict the likelihood of divorce with a remarkable degree of accuracy.
Gottman refers to the worst marital communication habits — criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling — as the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”
1. Criticism. Most people respond better to complaints than criticism.
A complaint or concern usually begins with the word “I.” (For example, “I was so disappointed when you cancelled our date tonight.”)
On the other hand, criticism often starts with the word “you.” (“You always break your promises!”)
As Richard Dobbins observed, “‘I’ messages inform; ‘you’ messages inflame.”
If criticism characterizes conversations and confrontations with your spouse, it doesn’t mean your marriage is dying, but it is cause for concern.
Gottman warns, “The problem with criticism is that, when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen to follow. It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and often causes the perpetrator and victim to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity, which eventually leads to contempt.”
2. Contempt. Dismissing each other as unworthy of respect and consideration is a major red flag.
Contempt may take the form of mockery, sarcasm, ridicule, name calling, mimicking, disdainful facial expressions, eye rolling, and scoffing.
Consider these contemptuous remarks:
“I thought you were 33, not 3! When are you going to learn to pick up after yourself?”
“You sound just like your mother! Nag, nag, nag!”
When communication in marriage reaches and stays at the level of contempt, it is dangerous territory. Gottman says, “Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated.”
Contempt attacks a person’s character. It is hazardous material in a home.
3. Defensiveness. When facing a complaint or critique, we have two options: listen, or become defensive.
The wild stallions of self-centeredness
and pride lead to poor communication and relational fissures. Improvement requires intentional focus and practice.
The natural response is defensiveness — rebutting or shifting blame. The first twinge of guilt over a mistake can trigger defense mechanisms.
Suppose one person asks, “Did you pick up the milk, like I asked?”
The other person might respond defensively: “Do you think I have time to run all your errands? Why don’t you do it yourself?”
However, a more productive response would be, “Oh, my mistake. I’m so sorry. I can run to the store right now if you’d like.”
4. Stonewalling. This happens when one person starts shutting down communication, disengaging, or practicing avoidance. Stonewalling often leads to people stomping out of the room, if not completely out of the house.
Every marriage formed in love, tenderness, and vulnerability has the potential for intimacy, camaraderie, and unity. However, marriage requires constant nurturing with more of the same.
The wild stallions of self-centeredness and pride lead to poor communication and relational fissures. Improvement requires intentional focus and practice.
Hold Your Horses
When navigating confrontations or managing disagreements, there are some important rules of engagement to keep in mind.
Register complaints without criticizing character. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted.”
No confrontation is easy or comfortable. Yet spouses should love each other enough to show grace and speak honestly. Sometimes truth hurts, but open communication also helps.
To keep confrontations from turning into altercations, stay focused on the issue. There is a temptation to connect one concern to another, going back in history to drag up old complaints and offenses. Remain in the moment, leaving past grievances buried.
Take a break from the conversation. A time-out is sometimes necessary.
Gottman found once an argument between a couple reaches a certain tone or pitch, there is simply no way of resolving it within the same setting.
Psychological angst can trigger physiological acting out. Before that happens, the best thing to do is step aside and calm down. Breathe deeply, take a walk, clean a room, or find some other reasonable diversion.
Give yourself and your spouse time to recover emotionally before reengaging the issue.
Communicate lovingly. As Ephesians 4:15 reminds us, we can and should speak truth in a loving manner.
Ask yourself, Do my words and tone reflect my promise to love and cherish? Do I care more about being “right,” or being in a right relationship with my spouse?
Learning to speak truth in love is vital for dealing effectively with conflict.
Ask about asking. Instead of just diving into a confrontation, ask about how and when to proceed.
For example, you might say, “Sweetheart, there’s a sensitive topic we need to discuss. When would be a good time and place?”
Gottman calls this the “slow startup.” While such an approach may not guarantee an agreeable audience, it does signal respect and consideration.
Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (ESV).
Give truth time. A big mistake many couples make is pushing truth instead of presenting it. When one person doesn’t get the immediate desired response, there is a tendency to force the point by escalating words, tone, and volume.
Resolution never comes that way — and neither does righteousness. James 1:20 says, “Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
Present the truth in love, and give it time to work in you and your spouse. Time and truth go together. Our responsibility is effectively and lovingly communicating.
These approaches can help rid your relationship of doomsday feelings and discouragement. If you have tried them and problems persist, consider seeking Christian marital counseling.
Marriage isn’t always easy, but it is always worth it. Make marital health a priority, and trust God to work in both your hearts.
This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Influence magazine.