My therapist says my MLCer is displaying the 4 predictors of divorce (Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling). Should I give up?
Your therapist is talking about John Gottman’s Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. That is the order they typically show up in a marriage—if they make an appearance. The MLC Monster often meets all four deliberately. Let’s review them.

  1. Criticism
    This is as compared to complaining. Gottman explains that complaining is positive because it points out behaviors, whereas criticism is negative because it blames and translates behaviors into character flaws. Ex. You don’t ever call when you are going to be late; [That is an acceptable complaint, but it becomes a criticism with tha attack that follows.] you are so insensitive, you just don’t care about anyone other than yourself. Of course he is being critical. What MLCer is not critical? One of the main ways of indentifying MLC is whether they project blame. Some are less critical and blame less, but the typical MLCer blames their spouse for everything from buying more food than is nonconsumable before it goes bad, to the bad economy and is overly critical to the point not only of being mean, but to the level of cruelty.
  2. Contempt
    Gottman says that this is the worst of the Horsemen; these are forms of contempt:
    • Sarcasm
    • Cynicism
    • Name-calling
    • Eye-rolling—this is one of his major indicators
    • Sneering
    • Mockery
    • Hostile humor
      I think I might add Condescension to that list. This is because contempt has an air of superiority.
      An MLCer’s typical cruelty is often mocking and hostile. Teenagers love sarcasm and cynicism and MLCers regress to teenage maturity. Problems are not solved by the disgust that contempt communicates. But then I’ve said it before, Replay is not where problems are solved.
      Contempt often has the purpose of lowering the other person and it is often delivered as deliberate insults.
  3. Defensiveness
    Defensiveness is often a way of not listening and according to Gottman’s description, it is what I call a Blame Twist. Consider Defensiveness in concert with Contempt. Recall that contempt comes with an air of superiority. In an argument one person becomes defense and the other, thinking they are better and smarter seeks to tear apart their partner’s argument using insults and degradation as primary tactics.
  4. Stonewalling
    After being attacked with Criticism and Contempt and then attempting to defend one’s Self—which yields only crueler Contempt—a person may tune out. Or after listening to defensiveness without feeling their partner is listening, a person may determine it is pointless and tune out. One spouse stops paying attention to the complaints or criticisms of the other. At this level there may be fewer arguments.
    When a man’s wife stops complaining, criticizing and defending, he feels relief because he thinks she has finally accepted and given in. Nope, she’s given up, not in. She may not take action for years, but she has finally given up on the marriage because she feels it is hopeless and thus pointless. Female stonewalling is more subtle; it’s covert. Typically Stonewalling is seen as a male tactic because a man’s stonewalling is overt. A woman may still do the same basic things she did before; she may cook, clean, care for the kids, go to work may even discuss work with her spouse and thus he feels satisfied. Men ignore; it’s less subtle. They ignore direct questions by feigning to be busy—reading the paper, using the bathroom, working in the garage…
    Stonewalling is a result of negative buildup from the first four Horsemen.
    • Indifference
      Indifferent is complete detachment to the point of not caring—it is too much detachment and not a level any of us should reach.
      Does your MLCer show indifference? Now think about that; you see indifference coming out of their body, but who is being indifferent? If they were truly indifferent they would not cycle at all.

Though it is important to know what makes a marriage work, during MLC your marriage is not at a place where you can start working on it. When a spouse is in MLC and leaving there is a different sort of work going on. The save-your-marriage-now and work-on-your-marriage-now books are helpful—especially with an at-home MLCer. But that does not mean they will solve the problems and that changing your behavior will stop the MLC. Those books are about how to do something before the situation reaches where you are now—prevention and damage control, but those books are directed toward marital problems, not the problems of a midlife crisis. Reading them can be a waste of time for many in the midst of MLC because since your MLCer will not respond to many of the techniques and efforts, you run the risk of using what you read to interpret that your situation is hopeless.

Those Horsemen are predictors; Gottman would probably not have written a book for the public about them if he did not have ways to work through those behaviors and improve. So having the Horsemen does not mean a couple will divorce, but without help divorce is a high probability.


Gottman, John. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Crown, 1999.


MLCers Meet Marital Warning Signs49 Comments

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