Conflict in relationships is unavoidable. Healthy and successful relationships know how to counteract unhealthy communication styles and adopt alternative forms of discourse to work through the conflict. On this episode, Tim and Rick discuss John Gottman’s famous metaphor for unhealthy communication styles that lead to failure in relationships, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They unpack each horseman - complaints vs criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, and they discuss diagnostic questions and ways to be diligent in addressing the horsemen when they crop up in our relationships and faith communities.
Rick Langer: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name is Rick Langer and I'm a professor here at Biola University in the Biblical Studies and Theology Department, as well as the Director of the Office of Faith and Learning, and the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project with my good friend, Tim, it's
Tim Muehlhoff: It's great to be with you, Rick. I'm a communications professor, 19 years at Biola University. You've been there how long?
Rick Langer: Yeah. Basically you got here one year before I did.
Tim Muehlhoff: Did I really?
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Wow. That's great. And we love being here. And one of the things we love is Biola's commitment to trying to speak truth and love. So the Winsome Conviction Project was started, and we are trying to help churches, Christian organizations, individuals speak truth and love to protect unity as we deal with the differences that deeply impact us.
So obviously, we love to read about communication. We love to listen to a good podcast, a good Ted talk. And one of the individuals that has deeply impacted our thinking about communication conflict is a man named John Gottman. He's one of the top relational experts in the world. He's written a ton of books. He's studied 5,000 couples, a longitudinal study where we kept track of them. If you like what you're about to hear, I just encourage you to go ahead and type Gottman in the search box. We did one. We called it Gottman's Greatest Hits, which was kind of fun to see what Gottman would suggest to us as we seek to run the Winsome Conviction Project.
We had such a fun time doing it, we thought, well, in no way did we exhaust John Gottman in 25 minutes. So we've always wanted to return to it. So that's what we're going to do today. You don't need to have listened to the prior one, but just know that there's some really cool Gottman nuggets out there that we're not going to touch on. We're going to touch on a small one and a big concept that Gottman is actually most famous for. Sound good?
Rick Langer: Ooh, that sounds good. Give me the easy one first.
Tim Muehlhoff: All right, here's the easy... Well, I shouldn't even say.
Rick Langer: Maybe not easy, but the smaller one. Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: But it's just a great reminder, Rick. Here's a great quote from Gottman, "Couples with a strong friendship have a lot more access to their humor, affection, and the positive energy to make it possible to have disagreements or to live with them in a much more constructive and creative way."
Sometimes, Rick, our conversations become all about politics, all about race, all about climate change, all about responding to Covid, and we kind of forget the things we liked about the person that we now find ourselves embroiled in a disagreement and Gottman saying, "No, no, no, don't forget the friendship and continue to work on the friendship even as you're having these disagreements."
Rick Langer: Yeah, this is another one of these classic examples of the kind of things that Gottman... He's talking about marriage communication by and large, but it doesn't take long thinking about how that works in a church. Because a lot of times we form these friendships. Maybe we're in a Bible study together, we share a common interest in apologetics or theology, or Heaven knows what all the different things you do at church. I mean, I remember our church had a thing that we used to do, probably they still do. I'm not in that location anymore, but going down to Mexico, building these things called loft houses.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, we did that. Yeah.
Rick Langer: So we had a bunch of guys who loved doing construction that'd meet and build these things. So they had this shared interest, the C.S Lewis thing, about two people sitting side by side, working on a common object of shared interest. There's something about the disagreements we have that suddenly turns us face-to-face and adds to an element of animosity and we forget how much we had been united by the side-by-side, shared interest, shared activity part of our lives.
Tim Muehlhoff: [inaudible 00:03:51] business guru calls this "loose connections" that as you disagree with each other, find a cause that you both like and do it together.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: And if you have teenage boys, which I've had three, you know it can't be butting heads 24/7. It just can't because you absolutely get nowhere. So then to say, "Hey, even in the midst of the fact we're having this disagreement, let's go get pizza. Let's go watch a baseball game."
Rick Langer: I think people do fly fishing or things like that. It doesn't have to be a political thing. And in fact, if all you have, and I would say political, I could easily say theological, you get these bones of contention, and when that's the only thing that's left on the table, it's hard to have a good conversation.
Tim Muehlhoff: Do you know who John Legend is, the singer?
Rick Langer: Singer? Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. He's got a great song called Slow Dance. And in this song, a couple is having a marital argument, and he says this, a great line, he said, "Hey, we can fuss and fight all night, or let's slow dance." So even in the midst of this argument, let's just pause. Put on a song and slow dance, and let's just not pick this up and keep going and arguing. Let's just do something that reminds us we really do like each other.
At the family life conferences that Noreen and I speak at, Saturday night is date night. And we say to the couples, "Hey, don't take your manuals. Don't sit during date night and have this huge conversation. Go do something both of you think is fun and don't talk one moment about the conference. Go and enjoy each other." It's a way to let the steam off and to remind ourselves we're not just our disagreements. We actually like this church. We actually admire each other. I think that's a great piece of advice from Gottman.
Now, if you read Gottman, you know that what he's most famous for is this really interesting thing called The Four Horsemen of Relational Apocalypse. Yeah, it might be a little bit dramatic, but Gottman, as he studied these 5,000 couples, and remember we started a previous podcast on... He could watch a couple argue for roughly five minutes and predict in the 90th percentile that they'll get a divorce. Now, what did he see became the Four Horsemen? Now, with each horseman, there's going to be a diagnostic question we can ask with the horseman.
Rick Langer: Oh, that's good.
Tim Muehlhoff: Right. So he says, "There's certain kinds of negativity if allowed to run rampant or so lethal to a relationship. I call them the four Horsemen of a Relational Apocalypse." Now, the key word Rick, is habitual. There is no doubt as you are listening to the Four Horsemen driving in your car on an elliptical, you're going to go, "Oh, no, I've done that." Well, rest assured, Rick has done all four of these. No, I'm just kidding. No, we've all done these. It's whether you habitually do them and they become a pattern. That's when he said there's a problem.
Now, he ranks the Four Horsemen, but understand each one is lethal, but he's going to start with the least lethal and go to the most, okay? So the very first one is what he calls Criticism. Now, in order to understand Gottman, you have to know the difference between a complaint and a criticism. Complaints should be part and parcel of your relationship with your spouse, child, church member, or neighbor. And he says a complaint addresses specifics. So it'd be something like, "Hey, it's frustrating that you don't help with the dishes." Right? That's a complaint. Totally legitimate. He'd be concerned in your relationship if you never felt the freedom to give a complaint.
Now, a criticism addresses a character trait. So it would be, "Hey, you are so self-centered, and I know you don't care about other people, but could you at least do the dishes?" He just went right after your character.
Rick Langer: Doing the dishes is the issue, but the one frames it as a complaint, the other frames it as a criticism-
Tim Muehlhoff: Of your character.
Rick Langer: ... of your character, yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: And he says, "That's the pattern is that if you were going after my character..." And by the way, can we just pause and say welcome to American politics where we are not offering complaints anymore. We are going right after criticism. This person's character is the problem. This person doesn't care about this country. This person is a reprobate. This person wants to destroy our liberty. And we go right after a candidate's character, and we wonder why we're knee-deep in the argument culture.
Rick Langer: Yeah. Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: So keep it issue centered, not character centered.
Rick Langer: And be careful of inferences that the person themselves don't make. And this comes up a lot where people will say a person... With immigration, there's one line of thought that goes with those who are pro immigration. "Oh, you guys don't care about the... You want open borders. Let everybody do anything they want." And did they say open borders, do anything you want, or did they just say they don't like the idea of a wall being built or whatever it might be? Then the flip side of it is the person who's saying, "Build a wall." You hate anybody who's different. You're xenophobic, whatever the language is. And it's like, "Well, wait, what did they say?"
This particular one's been interesting just in recent news cycle where I just heard President Biden was looking at building a chunk of wall between along the US-Mexican border. And I haven't paid any attention to details of it. It just is ironic that that same thing had been such an inflammatory issue with Trump, but then you have later President Biden looking at the situation going, "I don't know how to navigate this without some kind of a barrier." These sorts of things, you just are inferring the worst or the best, depending on what side of the controversy you're on. And oftentimes, it isn't what the person either said or would own on their own, but they're saying, maybe we're painted in the corner. We've tried other things. Who knows what they're saying? You got to find out, not just assume and infer the character judgment.
Tim Muehlhoff: And the question becomes, is it ever about character? And I would say, yes, it can be.
Rick Langer: Yeah. Sure.
Tim Muehlhoff: But be very careful to call into question your senior pastor's character. Now, it could get to the point where in fact, you must call into character and question part of his character. But at that point, let's not split. Let's not do splitting. He isn't all bad, she isn't all bad, but there is one part of character that you're finding concerning while you recognize the good character traits of the other person. I think that's kind of-
Rick Langer: Yeah, I think with probably all of these, there is bound to be a related underlying issue that might be really profound, really significant, might be character whatever it is in a relationship with a church or friendships or groups or things like that that you're a member of. You may just say, and this would be different than with a marriage, but you may just say, "This is just not a group I continue to go through." Something has shifted underneath the sand here and you don't have an obligation to stay in the professional association you're a part of or whatever it might be, and just say, "Okay, this one's a deal breaker." But I think that's often a mask for the fact that 90-95 percent of the time, you're making a choice to turn into the character issue as opposed to just say, "Let me just leave it at the complaint because I haven't done the research on their character." I don't have the time, patience, or need to.
Tim Muehlhoff: A key diagnostic question with the first horseman as you're trying to... How are we doing? How often in disagreements do you feel like your character is brought into question?
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's a pretty good question to ask. Man, I feel like my character is being questioned every disagreement. Do you really not trust who I am at the core of my character? Well, we need to have a talk about that, right? So it's a great diagnostic question to say, "Do I feel like my character is being attacked within this church neighborhood all the time?" That's going to be a crisis moment.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: So that's the first horseman. The second horseman is what he calls Contempt. Yeah. Now, we've had on our podcast before, I encourage you to look it up, is Arthur Brooks the Harvard researcher, right?
Rick Langer: Yeah. Well, American Enterprise Institute, I think now he's back at Harvard. He's done all kinds of things. Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: He talked about contempt, which he said is the eye roll. It is the dismissing of you. Not just your argument, but the dismissing of you. Do you see how these build? The first horseman says, "I am attacking your character, and because I'm attacking your character, it has fostered contempt within me." So the types of contempt that got me specifically mentioned; sarcasm, cynicism, mirroring Brooks, eye rolling, mockery, and hostile humor. Then the actual quote I looked up from our podcast from Arthur Brooks, he said, within that interview, which I thought was a drop the mic moment, "We don't have an anger problem in the United States. We have a contempt problem." Anger is actually productive and can help you work on a situation. But contempt is, "I don't care if this relationship continues because you're such a poor character."
Rick Langer: Yeah, it's almost fundamentally saying, this country, this church, this group, this school would be better off if you were gone. It's that dismissing level, not saying, "Well, of course you're part of the group, but we got to work on this because, man, you frustrate me. I doubt your character on this particular point." Questioning character is different than dismissing the person or wishing that the person would be dismissed.
Tim Muehlhoff: And Rick, how many times have we heard that in the last four years of the Winsome Confection project where somebody says, "Hey, this church would be better off without you"?
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Wow. That's a pretty sobering charge.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: So here's the diagnostic question when it comes to the second horseman, Contempt. How does a person express displeasure to you? All of us, if you're in marriage, a church or an organization, a neighborhood, there's going to be things that displease you. Again, remember, Gottman says it's okay to offer a complaint. It's okay to voice displeasure, but are you doing it in a way that's contemptuous?
Rick Langer: Yeah, that's interesting. With the sarcasm, mockery, hostile humor, you're almost exactly not expressing a complaint. You're doing something else. You're conveying it. It's not like the other person doesn't get it. Nobody's missing the fact that you are making your point. But the thing you're actually doing is creating kind of a side swipe that's basically intended to make the person hurt, not necessarily resolve the conflict.
Tim Muehlhoff: And tone could be totally part of that.
Rick Langer: Oh, yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: It's not even what I'm saying. I think that might fall under sarcasm a little bit is my tone is not reflective of what... Because we've said that to your kids. Obviously when you grow up, you're like, "Hey, care to rephrase that?"
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. Thank you. So how does a person express displeasure to you? Okay, horseman number three. Rick, I wish this was not one of the horsemen.
Rick Langer: Uh-oh. Have you got experience with this one?
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, I think I can fall prey to this because I did a debate in college. Horseman number three, Defensiveness. Now, there's another way of describing defensiveness, and he uses the term counter-complaining, right? Because remember, we've already said a complaint is okay unless it is immediately met with a counter-complaint, right? So go back to the dishes real quick. You say to me, "Hey..." And you do it fine, right? You give a complaint. You said, "It's a little bit frustrating to me, Tim, that you leave your dishes in the sink. I'd prefer that they just be cleaned right away." And I go, "Rick, I'm the one who leaves dishes in the sink? You always... I'm the one late? Are you kidding me? You are late. I'm the one who doesn't get my rent in on time? When's the last time you've had your rent in?" And remember, it's an immediate cross-complaint.
Rick Langer: And you can almost see the escalation.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, totally.
Rick Langer: Yeah, that's weird. It's a staircase that only goes up. You just keep adding one more element. You did this, you did it, and [inaudible 00:17:43].
Tim Muehlhoff: So you never get anywhere. You never get anywhere because you're dealing with a cross-complaint. And it's a defensive mechanism. If I shifted it on you and your propensity to do or don't do the dishes, I shifted it right off myself. We're no longer talking about me. We're talking about you're struggling, I think, with dishes.
A question becomes, a diagnostic question, how productive are your disagreements? Can you effectively close what is called the conflict loop? Which means we walk away and we've resolved the dishes issue. "Hey, after dinner, let's say before we go to bed, we both deal with the dishes in the sink, and we both sign off on that." That's what we call closing the conflict loop. What if in our church, we had a traditional service in which hymns were valued and we did X, Y, and Z, but then in a more contemporary service, we would allow Maverick City songs to be sung, and we wouldn't necessarily use-
Rick Langer: Maverick City?
Tim Muehlhoff: Do you not know Maverick City?
Rick Langer: I've never heard of them.
Tim Muehlhoff: Rick. Immediately, anyone listening to this podcast, stop and do a search on Maverick City. They're one of the best worship groups out there.
Rick Langer: Really?
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, they're absolutely amazing.
Rick Langer: Glad I showed up today.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, yes. So that's resolving the conflict loop is we both walk away saying, "I felt like this has been sufficiently dealt with, that we both can sign off on it."
Rick Langer: And I assume that this also... Let me just say when I think of relational conflicts, I've had both of my wife, but also I think a lot of times the things that school or other places where I've worked, these things come up a lot. You come up with we're going to do the dishes at night before we go to bed solution. And it doesn't work upon first pass or immediate implementation or blah, blah, blah. I guess it seems to me like there's kind of a discipline that says it isn't just closing the loop means we've come up with our next provisional approach to solving the problem. The problem is dynamic and so are the circumstances around implementing a solution. Any given solution may not last forever. Any particular solution may not even work the first time you try it, but you keep working on this and you have your disagreements in a way that opens the door to the next chapter in the ongoing saga of how do we manage the dishes?
Tim Muehlhoff: And remember, this was in a previous podcast we did on Gottman. Remembering the past and remembering it fondly or negatively.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: I think if a church goes through a really hard season, but finally closes the loop, we actually resolve this, that both parties feel good about this. Remember that. Keep that in your keepsake.
Rick Langer: Yeah, there's a big stone of remembrance.
Tim Muehlhoff: There's a big stone because the next time you hit a significant disagreement, say, "Hey, just for a second, remember, we've been here before and it took a lot of work, prayer, concessions, but actually remember? We worked this out. I have every confidence we could do it again." That is so good to do to remember, we actually have a positive history, not a negative history.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. So now he's on to what he considers the most dangerous-
Rick Langer: Number four.
Tim Muehlhoff: ... horseman number four, and that is, and this is kind personal to me, rooting against Detroit sports teams is he would... Okay, horseman number four is Stonewalling.
Rick Langer: Oh, yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Now, Gottman is very famous for another quote. And the quote is this, "Show me a couple who argues, I can save the relationship, show me a couple that doesn't care enough to argue, there's serious doubt that I can save the marriage." So then he says this, "The Stonewaller acts as though he couldn't care less about what you have to say. He sits like he's behind a stone wall." So Gottman says, "Show people within a marriage who are passionate enough, care enough about the issue that they're going to argue. I can work with that. Show me one person in a relationship that's like, yeah, I don't care anymore." You're disappointed in me. Woo. Newsflash. You're always disappointed in me. I've always let you down. I don't care anymore. You can't get a reaction out of me anymore because I just don't care. Gottman says, "Boy, that could be the most dangerous one because I can't get them to engage."
Rick Langer: Yeah. I remember a particular conversation I had with a couple of years ago in a marriage relationship that was like that. They both described this stonewall of silence. I mean, we're talking basically month long, multiple month long periods of silence apart from utilitarian communication, I left the car keys in the tray, whatever has to happen for the household to function, but the absolute refusal. And there was something dismal. I mean, it just hurts to think about.
Tim Muehlhoff: In a weird way, so this is what we do at marriage conferences, Rick. The very first night, Friday night, we have couples turn to each other, couples and say, "Just say to the couple next to you, we argue too," and the place burst out in laughter. So think about that. The next time your church is having a passionate disagreement, I think John Gottman would look at that church and say, "Good for you. You care enough to fight about this church. You care enough to go to this meeting and state your opinion. I can work with that." Now we can make it more civil. We can have not harsh startups, but soft startups. But listen, if you don't have enough concern for this church, I can't get you to disagree with each other. Then I think I'm concerned about the health of the church.
So maybe the fact that Americans are disagreeing with each other passionately and inappropriately, but still, let's sit back and say, "But we do care about this country." If we didn't care about the country, I don't care. Run the country how you see fit, I could care less. So maybe we just step back and say, "I appreciate your passion about this issue, and I'm passionate too, and I think it speaks well that we care about this university, church, or relationship." So Stonewalling is the one I think Gottman is the most concerned about. And the fact that we do care enough to disagree with each other, I think it could turn a negative into a positive.
Rick Langer: Yeah. Yeah. So one of the things that I've spent a lot of time lately... You and I both have been doing a fair number of things on the road, so to speak, or meetings with different people, different places. And one of the things that I keep butting up against are people saying, "Yes, but the dishes or the non dishes is not a moral issue." But this particular issue, and it may be abortion, it may be LGBTQ issues, it could be things about race. But this is a moral issue.
I think I would point out that I'm not sure that these things matter. I don't know that it's particularly different regarding a moral issue. A lot of these moral issues you can see two sides of, and that's what we're most familiar with. But you think about some of these things even within the context of a marriage where a person commits adultery. That's a moral issue. But the question then becomes, so what are we going to do with that moral disagreement? What are we going to do with this moral injury? Or things like that. And these are the skills, the modes of communicating, respecting each other as opposed to disdaining each other, that opens the door for healthy resolutions regardless of whether it's a moral issue or just a "difference issue". These are things that you don't see eye to eye. And the question is, how can we figure out a way to walk side by side nonetheless?
Tim Muehlhoff: Right. I remember in grad school, a professor wrote on the board, "The opposite of love is not hate." Because hate is a powerful reaction. He said, "The opposite of love is..." then he drew a blank. And now we all know. I mean, it's kind of become popular and he's probably quoting somebody, but we didn't know it that day. So we're all thinking of things. And he goes, "Indifference."
Rick Langer: Yeah, ignoring.
Tim Muehlhoff: Ignoring, I'm indifferent towards you. If I hate you... I'm a huge Detroit Red Wings hockey fan. And so Patrick Roy, the hated goalie of the Colorado Avalanche, when he would come to Detroit, Rick, they would boo him from the minute he stepped on the ice and they once interviewed him, they said, "How do you feel about that?" He goes, "I love it. They care enough to boo me." And I thought that was kind of interesting.
Okay, so that's John Gottman.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: We care about the relationships within this church. We care about our marriages. Obviously, we care about our relationship with our kids. So Gottman, the most famous thing he's known for is these Four Horsemen. And it'd be really well for us in a church as we take a look at what the horsemen are and are diligent to address each one of the horsemen right at the lowest level and with a complaint or criticism, and let's nip this in the bud. And then we would add probably a spiritual battle where Satan's trying to get a foothold and maybe he's using each of the horsemen to get a foothold.
Rick Langer: I mean, that's what I was going to say. You could simply look at these as examples of what are the footholds that Satan gets in the middle of Christian relationships, institutions, congregations, whatever it may be, marriages. These are the things that are... Yeah, I mean, I've done a little bit of rock climbing, grew up in Colorado, climbing mountains, and the foothold is the greatest thing in the world to be. Once you've got a good foothold, you feel like you can climb the mountains, so to speak. I feel like these are really good indicators that we're giving a foothold here that we don't want to give for tearing down and creating disunity within our institution or organization.
Tim Muehlhoff: How cool is it of God that through a non-Christian marriage researcher, relational expert, that God's given us great truths? And I love what you said, man. A lot of these can be tied right back to the Book of Proverbs. We see these kind of truths. So thank God literally that he's given us a person like John Gottman. Again, we have to have a discernment when we read them, but he's given us some insight into how relationships work and what you can do to protect it, or a relationship can dissolve. I think we could have stronger churches if churches knew the Four Horsemen and kept an eye out for each one of them.
Rick Langer: All right, well, thanks for joining us on this episode of the Winsome Conviction podcast. We always appreciate when you subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Spotify or wherever it is you get your podcasts. We strongly encourage you to just stop and reflect a little bit about some of things we just talked about today regarding the hallmarks, these Four Horsemen of the Relational Apocalypse, to say. What are the things that you might be doing and what are some things you might want to grow in or change in order to foster relationships, institutional life, work life that is just more healthy and just a little bit more pleasing to God? Thanks so much for joining us.