Maintaining the “Happily Ever After”


Maintaining the “Happily Ever After”

Many people in the United States grow up dreaming about the time when they can meet and marry “the person of their dreams”. Most of these people will fall in love and marry that person; the question today is, how long will that marriage last or what must a couple to do to have their “happily ever after” marriage?

In the United States today, about forty to fifty percent of married couples will divorce, with an even higher rate for those who marry more than once (https://www.apa.org/topics/divorce/). When looking at the other side, what this statistic tells you is that there are also fifty to sixty percent of couples who do not divorce, so what are these couples doing to maintain a happy and fulfilling marriage?

According to John Gottman, there are four communication styles that occur within a relationship that are predictors of divorce; he calls these four styles “The Four Horsemen”. Included in The Four Horsemen are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Gottman describes these four horsemen as follows:




Criticism as “an attack on your partner at the core of their character…[it is a] dismantling [of] their whole being” (https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/).




This communication style is mean and “treats other with disrespect, mock[s] them with sarcasm, ridicule, call[s] them names, and mimic[s] or use[s] body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless… While criticism attacks your partner’s character, contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over them… Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce” (https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/).




Defensiveness most often occurs when the relationship is already experiencing tough times. Defensiveness shows itself when “we feel unjustly accused [and] we fish for excuses and play the innocent victim so that our partner will back off” (https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/). This communication style does not take our partner’s concerns into consideration and does not allow us to take responsibility for our own mistakes.




Stonewalling tends to occur as a response to our partner’s contempt. “Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding to the partner” (https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/). Most often, when a person begins to stonewall, they begin to turn away, act busy, or develop distracting behaviors. Stonewalling is a “result of feeling physiologically flooded [and] we may not be in a physiological state where we can discuss things rationally” (https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/).


Thankfully, Gottman does not leave couples with simply this knowledge of the divorce-predicting communication styles. In order to maintain or get back to the “happily ever after”, Gottman provides “antidotes” for how to reverse The Four Horsemen. These antidotes are as follows (https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-the-antidotes/):


Criticism Antidote: Gentle Start Up – Talk about your feelings using “I” statements rather than “you statements” and state what you need.


Contempt Antidote: Build Culture of Appreciation – Remind yourself about the positive qualities of your partner and be thankful for their positive actions.


Defensiveness Antidote: Take Responsibility – Accept and acknowledge your partner’s point of view and apologize for any of your wrongdoings.


Stonewalling Antidote: Physiological Self-Soothing – Take a break when needed and do something that is soothing, relaxing, or serves as a distraction for you.


If you notice any of The Four Horsemen in your relationship with your partner, it does not mean that the relationship is “doomed”; however, what it does mean is that the antidotes need to be applied so that positive changes can occur within the relationship. Positive communication is key to a healthy and fulfilling relationship. It allows the couple to work through their troubles and conflicts while also sharing their joys with another. Applying the antidotes may take time, effort, and patience, but in the end it will be worth it to have a joyous and fulfilling relationship with your partner.

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Alicia Mueller

Alicia received her Bachelor of Science degree in Youth/Social Ministry from Crown College in 2012 and went on to graduate from Argosy University, Twin Cities with a Master of Arts degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. Prior to working with Lighthouse Counseling, Alicia interned at a private practice in downtown Minneapolis.

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