Communication Styles that Hurt your Marriage


It’s been said thousands of times that “communication in marriage is key”.

However, it is often so difficult for us to communicate with our spouses.

We might have seen how our parents communicated and never knew any different, or we might have developed bad habits along the way.  We might not even know that the way in which we are communicating is ineffective, hurtful and damaging to our marriage.

In the book “The Seven Principles For Making a Marriage Work” by Dr. John Gottmon uses the metaphor of “Four Horsemen” to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship.  The original “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” are pretty scary folks who represent conquest, war, hunger and death respectively. Dr. Gottmon’s Four Horsemen are just as aweful and represent critisism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.  Here they are in all their terrible glory:

The First Horseman in a relationship is Criticism.

Criticism is often confused with complaining.  When we have a complaint about our partner, we are addressing certain issues such as, “I was hurt when you didn’t come to bed with me.  I thought we had agreed that you wouldn’t stay up all night.”  However, the complaint turns to criticism when you attack the person’s whole being, not just the issue.  Such as “You are such a selfish person.  You never think about anyone else, and you are such a loser for staying up all night.”

Criticism cuts down our partner, and puts them in an immediate defensive state.  It is also most harmful when done in public or in front of others.

The Second Horseman in a relationship is Contempt.

All you have to do is see your spouse roll their eyes and you know exactly what it means.  Contempt is when you communicate in a mean way.  You use name-calling or ridicule.  You use sarcasm and body language to communicate.

It looks like this, “Oh really, you applied for THREE whole jobs today?  Wow, I’m so proud of you.  Too bad you are too lazy to actually get out there and GET a job.”

There is no love in this voice, no kindness or gentleness or grace.  It’s full of hatred, bitterness and anger.

The Third Horseman in a relationship is Defensiveness.

This one is so easy isn’t it?  We feel like the truth is something our partner doesn’t want to hear, or something that will hurt them.  We make up an excuse thinking that they will back off, simmer down, and let it go.  But it only makes them feel like you are not listening to anything they are saying.  It makes them feel like you are playing victim, and not taking any responsibility for your actions.  Basically, by defending ourselves it means that we end up ignoring our partners.

I am guilty of doing this very thing lately.  The other day my husband asked me if I had called about a bill that he had asked me to call on.  He said “Hey babe, I know you haven’t been feeling well, but were you able to call about that thing?  It’s really important.”  And I responded “No, I didn’t, I’ve been so busy taking care of YOUR kids, while sick, trying to keep up the house, and run around getting everything done.  I can’t do everything.  If it was so important then YOU should have done it.  You should have seen how busy I was, and done it yourself.”

Um, yeah, not a good response.  A better way to respond would be for me to just accept my mistake instead of turning it around on him.  I could have said, “Ya know what babe, I didn’t get it done.  I’m sorry.  I let other things take priority in this crazy week.  Maybe I should have asked for your help since I was a little overwhelmed?  I promise you I will call this afternoon, okay?”

I feel like defensiveness creeps in most often as a pattern.  It’s so easy to be defensive.  It becomes impossible for your spouse to feel comfortable bringing any complaint to you because you take it as criticism, and get defensive.  You are no longer a safe place for them to be open with you.

The Fourth Horseman in a relationship is Stonewalling.

My husband and I are both people that avoid conflict.  We just really hate it.  This can be a problem, and quickly turn to stonewalling.  A couple does this because they are unaware of their own emotions and feelings, or because they are afraid to deal with them.

Some people are those that let problems accumulate in their heart, and never say anything (and think that they are doing a good thing), and then when they can’t handle it anymore they explode.  Or some people will do whatever maneuver they can to avoid talking to you.  Or sometimes as soon as the conversation turns serious they say “I can’t talk about this right now”.  We tune-out, turn away, or sometimes engage in obsessive behavior (I HAVE to clean the bathroom right now!!).

You must engage and be intentional about relating to your spouse.

Do you recognize any of these behaviors in yourself?

If so, come back next week because we will talk about ways to improve your communication styles, and avoid those 4 horse guys! 😉

Carrington is a Christ follower, Wife and Mama to two adorable little ones.  She loves to write about family, marriage, faith and natural living at her blog Organic Life Love.


  1. Oh, I can so see myself (and my husband!) in that 4th horse. We’re both very easygoing people, so actual fights are few, and I’m often quick to attribute this to us both being laid back. But sometimes, I think its actually because we’re avoiding a conflict we know is coming- which certainly doesn’t help once we get to the point of being willing to discuss whatever was bugging us!

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