the-four-horsemanof-themarriageapocalypseThe first of Dr. John Gottman’s horsemen is “criticism.” The difference between criticism and complaint is this: a complaint focuses on a specific action while criticism is more global, focusing on your mate’s personality and character. (CLICK HERE to read the post on horseman 1)

The second of Gottman’s horsemen is “contempt” and he considers it the most deadly. Contempt is the feeling that your mate is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn. (CLICK HERE to read the post on horseman 2)

The next horseman is…

3. Defensiveness

Defensiveness is the counter-disease to criticism and  contempt. Getting defensive when one is attacked is certainly understandable. However, according to Dr. Gottman,

[Defensiveness] rarely has the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so deadly.1

Take note: defensiveness doesn’t arise only in response to the horsemen of criticism and contempt. Defensiveness can’t be blamed on your mate’s behavior. Defensiveness can stand on its own. The horseman of defensiveness can ride into an otherwise healthy disagreement or complaint.

Consider the example of taking out the trash again. He said he would take out the trash before he went to bed and he didn’t. The next morning, she legitimately complains that he did not keep his word about taking out the trash. She had not impugned his character or personality. He has a choice. He can get defensive and attack back. Or he can stay with the single issue at hand — taking out the trash — and apologize.

If a complaint is reasonable, getting defensive is just as unhealthy as any of the other horsemen.

As with criticism and contempt, one of the most important keys to overcoming defensiveness is to stay tightly focused on the exact issue, with each person taking responsibility for their words and actions. Don’t go global. Don’t attack the person or character. And don’t blame your partner for your own thoughts, words or actions. Stay focused, present and open.

Next post: Stonewalling.

1Gottman, John; Nan Silver. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (pp. 31-32). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


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The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert

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