The Four Horsemen of Marriage

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, he discusses the work of psychologist John Gottman. Gottman began researching marriage, seeing if he could pinpoint the factors that lead to the ultimate demise of a marriage. Gladwell writes (32):

He [Gottman] has found that he can find out much of what he needs to know just by focusing on what he calls the Four Horsemen: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. Even within the Four Horsemen, in fact, there is one emotion that he considers the most important of all: contempt. If Gottman observes one or both partners in a marriage showing contempt toward the other, he considers it the single most important sign that the marriage is in trouble.

“You would think that criticism would be the worst,” Gottman says, “because criticism is a global condemnation of a person’s character. Yet contempt is qualitatively different from criticism. With criticism I might say to my wife, ‘You never listen, you are really selfish and insensitive.’ Well, she’s going to respond defensively to that. That’s not very good for our problem solving and interaction. But if I speak from a superior plane, that’s far more damaging, and contempt is any statement made from a higher level. A lot of time it’s an insult: ‘You are a bitch. You’re scum.'”

Gottman has found, in fact, that the presence of contempt in a marriage can even predict such things as how many colds a husband or a wife gets; in other words, having someone you love express contempt toward you is so stressful that it begins to affect the functioning of your immune system. “Contempt is closely related to disgust, and what disgust and contempt are about is completely rejecting and excluding someone from the community…”