Marriage Research and the Bible

John Gottman* writes about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. He is not writing about prophecy. He is borrowing apocalyptic language to speak of four forces that sweep in and bring calamity to a marriage. He names these four horsemen Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling.

Criticism is fault finding. A young man I know quite well had a father who thrived on criticism. No matter what he did it was never good enough and drew criticism. For years he shut out his father. This dynamic often happens in a marriage, criticism escalates to contempt. This young man developed a contemptuous attitude toward his father. As he flew into a rage one day his wise mother’s instruction arrested this contempt. She said, “Son, do not focus upon what you do not like about your father or you will become like it.” A wise piece of advice for any mate as well!

Defensiveness, in my experience, bubbles out of the sense of contempt. The mate who has developed contempt is unwilling to receive any constructive input from the other. Any accusation is met with a harsh tone that hurls a counter accusation. Communication for anything other than business like who is picking up the children after practice becomes non-existent.

Finally one or the other mate shuts down. There is not engagement. There is planned avoidance. Gottman rightly refers to this as stonewalling and he also rightly concludes that in most cases the husband takes up this posture. Recently I’ve seen two of these cases. One man said, “I’m done! I don’t want to imbibe any more of her venom.” The other individual said, “She is right. What can I say to change that?”

If something in this essay sounds like your marriage or the marriage of your counselee, what can you do? That is a good question. Let me suggest you ask yourself four questions (or ask your counselee to ask him/herself these four questions.) Don’t focus on the mate, but on self.

  1. Do I speak the truth in love? Ephesians 4:15, 25
    Most of the marital conflicts that I observe in my office result in part from a lack of speaking the truth or if truth is spoken, it is loveless and sometimes even with malice.
  2. Do I right the relationship before going to bed? Ephesians 4:26-27
    Notice that verse 27 indicates that going to bed with a broken relationship provides the Devil with opportunity. If you have gone to bed angry you have arisen either angry or depressed in most instances. This gives the Devil the opportunity! Notice, I did not ask if you settled the issue before going to bed. No, that may not be possible. But you can say, “The way I spoke to you hurt you and I was wrong, please forgive me.”
  3. Do I address issues or do I make issues personal? Ephesians 4:29
    Unwholesome words (critical words, contemptuous words) turn issues into personal attacks. This verse instructs us to take a very different tack. We should speak words that will build up (provide tools to address the issue, affirm that we believe in the other person and their ability to join us in solving the problem, etc.). Obviously this means that we must have the mate’s best interest in mind (give them grace).
  4. Do I attempt to manipulate my mate through meanness? Ephesians 4:31-32
    These verses make it very clear that I can choose to behave in a manner that engenders the four horsemen or I can choose to behave in a manner that exercises my responsibility to imitate the model of God in my relationship with my mate.

You see, the Scriptures provide us with the practical means to insure that these four horsemen of the apocalypse never ride into our marriage and wreak their destructive havoc. Gottman’s creative depiction of the outcome of his research is very useful. It encourages us to galvanize our marriages against these inevitable (and the research does demonstrate the regularity of these horsemen) destructive forces. The Bible gives us the tools. The Holy Spirit gives us the power. We have a choice to glorify God in our marriage and reap the personal benefit.

*John Gottman. The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work. Three Rivers Press.

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