Many couples enter therapy for the first time hoping that they will learn better ways to communicate and their relationships will improve. A “common complaint made by couples is that the communication between them has eroded or at least negatively changed over time” (Mahafeey, 2010 p. 45). Healthy communication between couples has a high correlation with satisfaction and happiness in the relationship. Research has found that “lack of communication, distressed communication, and negative communication have all been linked to couple distress…conflict, and psychological distance within the relationship” (Mark & Jozkowski, 2013, p. 414).
Leading researcher in couples counseling John Gottman (1999) proposed that relationship satisfaction is not dependent on whether a couple fights but rather how they fight. In his research, Gottman found that couples that reported being happy and satisfied with their relationships have a five-to-one ratio of positive interactions for every negative interaction (Gottman & Silver, 1999). Therefore, one of the goals of therapy should be to help couples change destructive conflicts into constructive and reparative communications opportunities.
Gottman discovered that couples that reported being less satisfied with their marriage, often began their discussions with “harsh start-ups” such as, criticism of the partner or sarcastic remarks. He also observed that these couples had more criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling during their interactions. The negative interactions became known as the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” (p. 27). Through his research on couples he has been able to predict with 97.5% accuracy the longitudinal course of relationships (Gehart, 2013).
The Four Horsemen
The presence of the four horsemen during an interaction between couples can predict divorce with 85% accuracy (Gottman, 1999). The four horsemen are: a) criticism, b) contempt, c) defensiveness, and d) stonewalling. Criticism is a statement that attacks character and implies that there is something inherently wrong with the partner (e.g. “you always do everything wrong”). Contempt is expressed when one partner sees themselves as superior to the other (e.g. “you don’t deserve to be with me”). Defensiveness is protecting oneself from attacks by the partner (e.g. “This is all your fault… You always mess everything up”). Stonewalling is withdrawing from the interaction emotionally, mentally, or physically (Gehart, 2013, p. 302). Flooding, or the feeling that a partner’s negativity is so overwhelming that it leaves the other shell shocked, also was a common element discovered in couples that reported being dissatisfied in their relationship. Finally, the greatest predictor of divorce that Gottman found was failed repair attempts. Failed repair attempts are “efforts that a couple makes to deescalate the tension during a touchy discussion” and in “unhappy marriages… [It is] harder to hear and respond to a repair” (Gottman, p. 40). Therefore, distressed couples have more attempts at repair then happy couples because these attempts are unsuccessful at ending or deescalating the argument.
Communication between couples is an important factor in determining each partner’s satisfaction in the relationship and is linked tightly to relationship outcomes (Johnson & Bradley, 2009). Being able to communicate in a calm and respectful way can help couples learn healthy ways to handle conflict and improve their relationship. Couples therapy can help couples learn these tools and has been found to be highly effective in decreasing the “likelihood of divorce and improving individual and family well-being” (Tambling, Wong & Anderson, 2014, p. 29).
If you are interested in reading more about John Gottman’s research you can check out his book: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
** This blog is an excerpt of an academic paper written by Sandra Kushnir, MFTI. 85116
Gehart, D. (2013). Mastering competencies in family therapy: A practical approach to theories and clinical case documentation. (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Crown Publishers.
Johnson, S., & Bradley, B. (2009). Emotionally focused couple therapy: Creating loving relationships. In J. H. Bray, M. Stanton (Eds.) , The Wiley Blackwell handbook of family psychology (pp. 402-415). Wiley Blackwell. doi:10.1002/9781444310238.
Mahaffey, B. A. (2010). Couples counseling directive technique: A (mis)communication model to promote insight, catharsis, disclosure, and problem resolution. The Family Journal, 18(1), 45-49. doi:10.1177/
Mark, K. P., & Jozkowski, K. N. (2013). The mediating role of sexual and nonsexual communication between relationship and sexual satisfaction in a sample of college-age heterosexual couples. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 39(5), 410 427. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2011.
Tambling, R. B., Wong, A. G., & Anderson, S. R. (2014). Expectations about couple therapy: A qualitative investigation. American Journal Of Family Therapy, 42(1), 29-41. doi:10.1080/01926187.2012.