Many people today seek out the “secret” to success: the secret to losing weight, the secret to getting a promotion, or the secret of finding a perfect mate. Those who are engaged in continual conflict with their spouses often ask psychologists, “What is the secret to strong marital communications?”

Ultimately, there are no “secrets” in the sense of quick-fixes. But in the realm of marital communications, there are pitfalls to avoid as well as means to avoid them. Dr. John Gottman calls these pitfalls the “Four Horsemen” of a marital “apocalypse.” Let’s look at these four horsemen and how to defeat them.

The Four Horsemen

The four horsemen of marital communications are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt.


Gottman’s first horseman is criticism. In any relationship, there will be disagreements, which can lead to criticism. However, the danger of criticism is when it becomes an attack on the spouse’s whole modus operandi. If a statement starts with, “You always/never…” you can be sure it’s become a pitfall of marital communications.


The second horseman naturally follows from the first: defensiveness. When a spouse is overly critical, it’s natural to become defensive in response. Becoming defensive causes heartbeats to rise and empathy skills to shut down. The response is to counter-attack the person criticizing us. Think about it: who does not become defensive around a manager whom you believe does not care about you and only criticizes you? Now imagine living with such a person. That is the kind of havoc the criticism-defensiveness dynamic can create in a marriage.


Once a couple gives into the critical-defensive scenario, it’s easy to move to the next horseman: stonewalling. Due to the toxic nature of a critical-defensive relationship, many spouses will simply shut down. They will cease speaking to each other for an extended period, intentionally avoiding bringing up the heated issue.


The final horseman is the last step in the criticism-defensive-stonewalling cycle: contempt. Gottman’s research has two solemn warnings for contempt: 1) it’s the sulfuric acid of love, akin to emotional abuse, and 2) it predicts divorce more than the other three horsemen. Contempt is categorically placing oneself above one’s spouse. An example would be mocking your spouse’s performance with doing the dishes or driving. Sarcasm can sometimes even become contempt, especially if only one spouse is laughing.

Defeating the Horsemen

These four horsemen are easy to fall prey to, but there are elementary solutions to each of them which spouses can immediately implement. They are: 1) complaining without blame, 2) taking responsibility, 3) physiological soothing, and 4) building a culture of appreciation.

Complaining Without Blame

Often a spouse’s complaint may have some merit (perhaps your spouse does struggle with routinely taking out the trash). However, how you voice your complaint usually is what sends a spouse into defensiveness. Examine the difference between these two complaints, “Honey you always start watching TV right when you get home. It’s like I must beg for your attention. What is wrong with you?!” Now examine this complaint: “Honey, I feel hurt when you go straight to the TV after work. I love spending time with you, and I feel like we never have enough time when you watch TV right when you get home.” You can hear the tone of voice in the first complaint as cutting, whereas the second complaint you hear the spouse’s hurt. The spouse makes sure to talk about his positive need and not just complain about a particular behavior.

Taking Responsibility

Even if a spouse becomes critical, you are still in the driver seat. Remain calm and take some responsibility for the behavior to which she is complaining. Unless she are psychotic, she has some validity to her point. However, you then have the right (and obligation) voice how you do not appreciate her criticism in a calm manner.

Physiological Soothing

Couples should use self-soothing to break down stonewalling. When a couple’s argument reaches a zenith, then both become physiologically overwhelmed. Being overwhelmed plays out in not thinking logically, saying things to “win” the argument, or raising one’s voice. In any case, the couple’s ability to engage with each other is compromised. Before you reach this point, you should recognize that your heart rate is rising and begin to take steps to calm yourself. Such actions as deep breathing, visualizing calming places, or calling a timeout will help you and your spouse avoid becoming overwhelmed and saying things you do not mean.

Building a Culture of Appreciation

Finally, the best way to counteract contempt is to build a culture of appreciation and fondness. Remember why you first said hello to your spouse all those years ago, and why you either said yes to their proposal or decided to propose in the first place. Focusing more on the positive aspects of your spouse is not the same as whitewashing his personality. He still has his quirks and character flaws, but painting them in a positive light will help you realize that he should not be defined by and remembered for those shortcomings. None of us would wish to have our lives played back for us via a movie, but when we become contemptuous, that is what we are doing to our spouses. Remember, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Creating a Communion of Persons

Marital communication appears simple on paper, but is quite complicated in real life. No couple gets it right 100% of the time, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Marital miscues give us the chance to see that our spouses and we are not perfect, as such, we should make sure we give each other a second chance to communicate effectively. We need to realize that communication is not about winning, but is about continuing down a path toward a true communion of persons within marriage. A communion which God always intended.