Negative Signs Of A Sick Marriage

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Negative Signs Of A Sick Marriage

Negative Signs Of A Sick Marriage

In marital conflicts, Gottman came up with a list of characteristics that are particularly negative, which he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” since they signal impending doom if left unchecked.Negative Signs Of A Sick Marriage

John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

1. Criticism

Attacking your partner’s personality or character, usually with the intent of making someone right and someone wrong.Negative Signs Of A Sick Marriage

• Generalizations: “You always . . .” “You never. . .” “You’re the type of person who . . .” “Why are you so . . .”
2. Contempt   Negative Signs Of A Sick Marriage

Attacking your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse him/her.

• Insults and name-calling: “bitch, bastard, wimp, fat, stupid, ugly, slob, lazy . . .”

• Hostile humor, sarcasm, or mockery

• Body language and tone of voice: sneering, rolling your eyes, curling your upper lip . . .


3. Defensiveness    Negative Signs Of A Sick Marriage

• Seeing self as the victim, warding off a perceived attack:

• Making excuses (e.g., external circumstances beyond your control forced you to act in a certain way), “It’s not my fault . . . ”, “I didn’t . . .” Negative Signs Of A Sick Marriage

• Cross-complaining: meeting your partner’s complaint or criticism with a complaint of your own, ignoring what your partner said

• Disagreeing and then cross-complaining: “That’s not true, you’re the one who . . .” “I did this because you did that. . .”

• Yes-butting: start off agreeing but end up disagreeing

• Repeating yourself without paying attention to what the other person is saying

•Whining “It’s not fair.” Negative Signs Of A Sick Marriage


4. Stonewalling

Withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. Partners may think they are trying to be “neutral,” but stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation, disconnection, and/or smugness:

• Stony silence

• Monosyllabic mutterings.Negative Signs Of A Sick Marriage

• Changing the subject

• Removing yourself physically

• Silent Treatment


If any of these behaviors sound familiar, it’s because they are universally employed strategies in conflict situations. The legal system has ritualized the defense/prosecution positions, and many couples do in fact fight as if they are in court and there is some objective “truth” that can be sorted out by using these techniques. What emotionally intelligent couples know is that the truth between two people is often less important than how we chose to perceive our partner’s actions.
An example might be when your partner is late meeting you for dinner. Gottman cites a case in which the husband was furious that his wife came late to a nice evening he had planned. She, unknown to him, had stopped to pick up a gift, but by the time she arrived he was so resentful and angry that the dinner was ruined. He focused on her negative behavior—strictly speaking, she was “guilty” of being late—rather than her positive behavior. As Gottman puts it, emotionally intelligent partners avoid this kind of debacle because “in their day-to-day lives they have hit upon a dynamic which keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones.”

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This is not to say that all negative behavior should be forgiven. Some issues, such as betrayal, substance abuse, or physical abuse should not be glossed over but must be met head on. And many people suffer from a lack of insight into the ways in which “transference” of feelings from figures in their past are interfering with seeing the partner as he/she really is—(“You’re just like my father—only interested in yourself and your career!” etc.) However, even when discussing or working through the most serious of conflicts, Gottman’s suggestions for constructive interaction are important pointers. In his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail,  his suggestions for remedies are:

• Learn to make specific complaints and requests (when X happened, I felt Y, I want Z)

• Conscious communication: Speaking the unarguable truth & listening generously

• Validate your partner (let your partner know what makes sense to you about what they are saying; let them know you understand what they are feeling, see through their eyes)

• Shift to appreciation (5 times as much positive feeling & interaction as negative)

• Claim responsibility: “What can I learn from this?” & “What can I do about it?”

• Rewrite your inner script (replace thoughts of righteous indignation or innocent victimization with thoughts of appreciation, responsibility that are soothing & validating)

• Practice getting undefended (allowing your partner’s utterances to be what they really are: just thoughts and puffs of air) and let go of the stories that you are making up

All of this is easier said than done, especially when the partners are in the heat of a marital argument. Nevertheless, Gottman claims that those partners who have “developed” the habit (ormuscle, as he calls it) of kindness will be more apt to succeed if they have a lot of “positive” interactions (see last week’s column about “bids”) in their “marriage bank.” Most important is the idea that much of this is under your control: you can choose to be more thoughtful and conscious of your partner both during times of war and times of peace, and your marriage will be better for it.

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