Marriage therapy is focused on helping couples heal the hurts that have accrued over the years in a relationship. It is common for couples to enter marriage therapy deeply hurt, angry, and frustrated. It is also common for couples to have a hard time articulating exactly what it is that brought them to such a place. Many cite infidelity, money issues, or stress at work. Others describe fighting about the same thing over and over with difficulty avoiding the constant battles.
Renowned marriage therapists John and Julie Gottman use a metaphor to describe the communication patterns that predict divorce. They describe the four horseman of the marriage apocalypse as criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Criticism occurs when a partner attacks the character of their spouse. It is more than communicating disagreement or dislike for a specific behavior. Criticism is more generally and attacks the person. Leaving ones clothes on the bathroom floor may evoke a comment stating, “you are selfish and don’t think of how this impacts me” as opposed to a more specific comment like “leaving your clothes on the bathroom floor bothers me”. When unchecked criticism tends to increase over time and can lead to the second horseman of contempt.
Contempt goes even further than criticism and seems to have roots in feelings of anger. A spouse communicates contempt through the use of sarcasm, name-calling, put downs and negative body language. Contempt may cause the target to feel despised or worthless.
Criticism and contempt can result in defensiveness. When one is feeling attacked it is common to defend as a way to protect against blame or hurt. This approach however tends to make things worse as the critical partner views the defense as excuses and may feel unvalued and ignored. John Gottman suggests apologizing and taking ownership for ones actions in place of defensiveness as a way to disarm criticism and contempt.
Stonewalling occurs when one partner has had all they can handle of the first three horsemen and builds a wall to protect from the onslaught. Couples often refer to stonewalling as shutting down or checking out. The stonewalling partner is overwhelmed and does not know how to get unstuck and so becomes passive as a last resort. This may include distracting oneself with work, outside interests, or busy activities.
The solution: Marriage Therapy
So what can a couple do? For many working with a licensed counselor can help to overcome the four horseman and learn more adaptive communication strategies that lead to connection and reconciliation. If you are interested in marriage therapy give us a call at 217-231-1413 to get started. If you have more questions go here to read more about my approach to couples counseling and subscribe to the blog below to get our next post on the the four antidotes to the four horsemen.