Updated: Jul 25, 2022
If you're evaluating your marriage after the discovery of an affair, or if you're trying to navigate the post-affair discovery phase, you need to ask yourself if any of John Gottman's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were/are present in your interactions with your spouse.
John Gottman, founder with his wife Julie of the Gottman Institute, can predict divorce with 91% accuracy using the factors I'll share below. Importantly, he asserts that problems in a marriage that lead a couple to divorce are the same problems that send a person looking for intimacy outside a marriage.
As Gottman writes, "Trysts are usually not about sex but about seeking friendship, support, understanding, respect, attention, caring, and concern." (The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, Gottman, John, PhD, 1999).
The following "Four Horsemen" are four signs in a marriage that each increase the likelihood that a couple will divorce. And, I'd add, each of these four horsemen increase the likelihood that one or both partners will stumble into infidelity.
Horseman 1: Criticism. While complaints can be productive because they express feelings about a situation or behavior and ask for improvement, criticism is powerfully different because it is a direct assault on the person themselves. Criticism asserts negative feelings or opinions about your spouse's character or personality. Complaint: "I'm upset you didn't do the laundry again; now the kids have no clean clothes for church. Can you please do a quick was now?"
Criticism: There's no clean laundry again. All you care about is yourself. Somehow you find time for everything you want to do except for the one thing I asked of you. I wonder what it feels like to be that selfish!"
Horseman 2: Contempt. Contempt is an expression of superiority over one's spouse. Sneering, sarcasm. demeaning, asserting a sense of higher moral ground are all expressions of contempt. Contempt is disrespectful and severs the bond of safety and intimacy in a partnership. Contempt is rooted in festering resentments and negative beliefs about your spouse. An example of contempt, said in a sarcastic, sneering voice: "Wow, you didn't do the laundry AGAIN. Amazing. You're just a real champion around here -- the kids just LOOOOOVE dad, but meanwhile I'm the one who does everything." Mockery, hostile humor, disgust, put-downs, eye-rolling, name calling are all contempt.
Horseman 3: Defensiveness: When a spouse jumps to defensiveness instead of listening and responding to a complaint or observation it prevents a disagreement from being productive. Often times couples swing between contempt, criticism, and defensiveness because all three go hand in hand with creating an undercurrent of un-safety in the marriage. The natural instinct is to defend yourself in response to the presence of contempt or criticism. Nothing gets resolved, and most importantly nothing gets addressed. Rather, interactions become a series of subtle or not so subtle attacks responded to with self-protection.
Horseman 4: Stonewalling. The prior three factors lead to the ultimate in self-protection: Stonewalling. Stonewalling is an adaptive behavior where one spouse tunes out the expected barrage or onslaught of criticism or negative interactions from the other spouse. Rather than engage in the confrontation, one spouse has silently waved the white flag and they silently enter a pattern of disengaging. In response, the more engaged spouse gets louder and more energetic, and they're met with little response, which circles back to more frustration. Stonewalling is a coping mechanism that allows one spouse to survive in an environment that can easily feel overwhelming or psychically/emotionally unsafe. Most commonly, though not exclusively, it is men who adopt stonewalling behaviors. Signs of stonewalling include retreating to another room, making themselves generally scarce, one word answers, silence, avoiding eye contact, and avoiding emotional engagement.
Evaluate your marriage honestly. I've met with. many couples where one spouse denies the reality of any of the four horsemen, while the other (usually the one who had the affair) is upset because they ended up there as the result of feeling 'pushed out' of their marriage by the behaviors of the four horsemen.
Evaluate honestly how you're responding to your partner in every day life, as well as in important interactions like processing the affair and how to move forward. Personalized and intensive affair coaching can help you identify behaviors and patterns that could make or break your marriage. Understanding the important factors above can help you appropriately determine whether you're headed for divorce or whether you can create a better marriage in the wake of infidelity.
Lauren provides boots-on-the-ground lived experience combined with invaluable professional expertise working with infidelity. She is committed to helping individuals and couples deal with and heal from marital affairs in a highly effective, yet warm and judgment-free style.
Lauren's articles help share much-needed information, and reduce the stigma and shame around the common experience of infidelity. Contact Lauren at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about working together.
Lauren, Affair Specialist