The Four Horsemen of the Marriage Apocalypse


fight - coupleThere are four things which lead to an impending marriage failure: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. At least that’s the opinion of one marriage expert, John Gottman, who was recently interviewed by TIME for an article on marriage, “These 4 Things Kill Relationships”.

I’d venture to guess Gottman is not Catholic and so is naturally missing the entirety of the Truth. If you take a Catholic understanding of marriage and, more importantly, human nature, Gottman is merely pointing out symptoms, trying to treat the symptom instead of getting to the actual problem which is causing those symptoms. Uncovering the symptoms of a failing marriage is only half the battle, but a resolution will only come from determining the problem, which Gottman neglects to do.

Three Marriage“Problems”

According to Gottman, criticism, contempt, and defensiveness are three of the leading causes of failed marriages. It’s interesting that criticism is listed first as it is most often contempt that leads to bad criticism and defensiveness is really an aspect of criticism. Furthermore, it needs to be clarified that not all criticism is bad. In fact, marriage and any relationship, for that matter, need a healthy dose of criticism in order to flourish – constructive criticism that is.

Confrontations and conflicts happen all the time marriage. They shouldn’t be avoided nor treated lightly, but rather resolved with love and understanding using the gift of counsel. Criticism is how we grow as humans. I’d agree with Gottman that some criticism does attack the person and is not constructive toward helping the other person improve his or her weaknesses. The type of criticism Gottman refers to should more accurately be called denigration and is born out of contempt for the other person; it puts blame on one person while the other points with judgement and pride.

Denigration is demeaning and degrading to one person, treating them as if they were not made in the image and likeness of God; even taking away their dignity as a human person. Criticism as denigration might speak some truth, but it does not speak the Truth in love, but rather disgust and contempt for the other person.

It’s difficult to imagine how spouses could hold contempt for one another, and oftentimes spouses do not even realize they do have or act with contempt. However, it’s possible and even easy to fall into as you live with your spouse and his or her weaknesses day in and day out. It becomes frustrating, especially when one spouse seems to give more than the other or does more for the marriage than the other. Contempt held by a spouse is easy to have if you constantly focus on the shortcomings of your spouse, neglecting to see your own shortcomings, sins, and weaknesses.

This constant focus and contempt only leads to a disgust of the other person and makes it nearly impossible to handle confrontations in love. It most oftentimes leads to the very criticism Gottman is referring to. criticism that attacks the whole person and is denigrating. Furthermore, this type of criticism neglects the responsibility and partial blame of the person doing the criticizing – a problem Gottman refers to as defensiveness.

Gottman is correct in pointing out that constantly blaming your spouse while maintaining your own innocence is poisonous to a marriage or any relationship. However, what Gottman calls defensiveness is really the sin of pride and the root cause of the problems involving denigration and contempt. It is judgement without love; criticism without charity; and does nothing more than tear down and degrade the dignity of the other person.

Do not judge others, or you yourselves will be judged. As you have judged, so you will be judged, by the same rule; award shall be made you as you have made award, in the same measure. How is it that thou canst see the speck of dust which is in thy brother’s eye, and art not aware of the beam which is in thy own? Matt 7:1-4 – Msgr. Ronald Knox Latin Vulgate Translation

This passage is often cited as an attack against an accuser by the accused so as to take the blame off of themselves or as an excuse to not listen to the criticism. However, this passage is not to be of comfort to those in the wrong, but rather a caution against those who witness the wrong.

To point out the wrongdoing of someone else is not a sin or wrong in and of itself. However, criticism born out of a judgement of the whole person instead of simply the behavior is what is being cautioned against in this passage and what leads to many deep marital troubles. It is only with the practice of the virtues of prudence, charity, and counsel that criticism of a spouse (or any person for that matter) should be made; the criticism that is constructive and speaks Truth in love, helping the other person improve and grow closer to Christ and Heaven.

Stonewalling Isn’t Necessarily The Problem 

 Gottman holds the belief that stonewalling is one of the major problems that leads to a failed marriage. However, as is quite clear in his observation of this, he’s focusing on a symptom and not the real problem. A person who results to stonewalling is reacting to a more serious problem, much like denigration, contempt, and defensiveness.

Disengaging from the conflict and, eventually, the relationship itself, is a result of an overarching problem – either from constantly being attacked by your spouse and held with contempt, or growing so wearing of holding contempt that you just give up. In both cases, stonewalling is a reaction, a last ditch resort or a feeling of complete defeat, helplessness, and despair.

Stonewalling can be both a reaction and an action, either in losing faith and hope or acting with vengeance, hatred, and wrath. It shows no love nor is receptive towards any love and is difficult to recover from without forgiveness and the virtues of hope and charity on both spouse’s part.

What Makes a Successful Marriage? 

Gottman concludes that those marriages that are successful are those in which couples accept that problems are inevitable. Yes, this is partly true – problems are inevitable. However, caution always needs to be taken with this as it can lead to complacency. Acceptance of another person’s weaknesses does not mean a shrug of the shoulders and an “oh well” attitude, but rather an understanding of who that person is and how better to help them. As spouses, we are called to help lead the other person and our children to Heaven, and this includes the gentle correction of weaknesses.

This requires the practice of virtues and, with the help of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, acceptance becomes understanding and understanding leads to corrections made in and out of love, rather than pride, judgement and contempt.

Your love must be a sincere love…Be affectionate toward each other, as the love of brothers demands, eager to give one another precedence…Bestow a blessing on those who persecute you; a blessing, not a curse. Live in harmony of mind, falling in with the opinions of common folk, instead of following conceited thoughts; never give yourselves airs of wisdom…Do not be disarmed by malice; disarm with kindness. Rom 12:12 – Msgr. Ronald Knox Latin Vulgate Translation


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3 thoughts on “The Four Horsemen of the Marriage Apocalypse”

  1. Maggie Sullivan

    When I saw the title the The Four Horsemen of the Marriage Apocalypse……I though we would see Cardinal Marx, Cupich, schonborn, and Kasper riding rainbow colored horses using copies of Amoris Laetitia as weapons of mass destruction………..

  2. If familiarity breeds contempt then it is possible that a human brain isn’t necessarily wired to deal with
    marriage until death parts. Factor in the 9th commandment ( the gateway to breaking the 6th ) and
    not entirely understanding the function of the hypothalamus which regulates the other four horsemen
    ( fear, aggression, hunger and sex ) and I’d say the reason for everything from divorce to unfaithfulness
    is the monster challenge for two people who not only think they know someone but able to extrapolate what living with them will be like for the next 50 years. Imagine a life expectancy of 120 and it will be critical to determine the most important factor : when to start this commitment.

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