The "Four Horsemen" In Relationships
Written by Dr. Megan Noren, PsyD
John and Julie Gottman, leading researchers and clinicians in the field of couples counseling, identified four significant communication problems that occur within conflict. They called them the “Four Horsemen” to signify that the relationship is in trouble and could be headed for the “end of days” if the dynamic does not change. Learn how to spot the problematic behaviors and practice the antidotes in order to decrease or eliminate these toxic interactions.
Criticism: The first of the four horsemen, criticism, happens when we attack our partner’s character rather than address a specific behavior or concern. This may stem from a series of unexpressed frustrations and needs which have started to lead to resentment. For example, “I see the dishes aren’t done yet and here you are sitting on the couch like always. You’re such a lazy slob.” This partner may have valid emotions and unmet needs in this situation (e.g., feeling overwhelmed, needing connection and support), but it is likely to be completely missed when a conversation starts in this way.
Antidote to Criticism: The Gottmans identified using a gentle start-up as a way to avoid expressing criticism and blame. This involves using “I” statements rather than “you” and avoids extremes such as “always” and “never.” A more productive way to reframe the previous example may sound like, “Honey, I’m feeling really overwhelmed with the housework lately. Could you knock out the dishes tonight?”
Defensiveness: Defensiveness often occurs in response to a person feeling criticized, attacked, or blamed. It is a way to push the focus away from the self and throw blame back onto their partner. It may also look like taking on a martyr or victim role while ultimately ignoring the partner’s concern. Essentially, defensiveness serves a purpose to protect the self from accepting any personal wrongdoing. For example, if one person asks if their partner remembered to pay the phone bill before the due date this month, a defensive response might sound like, “It has been on the counter for days now. You could have paid it yourself, you know, rather than throwing one more thing on my plate. I guess I’m just the worst boyfriend, aren’t I?” This type of response is likely to only escalate the situation.
Antidote to Defensiveness: It is important to take responsibility for our role in the conflict, no matter how small. This allows for a much more productive problem-solving conversation rather than tossing blame back and forth like a hot potato. A better response to the previous example might be, “Shoot, it totally slipped my mind again today. I’ll go pay it right now and set a reminder in my phone so I do it earlier next month.” In other situations, it might sound like, “You’re right,” “I can see where you’re coming from here,” “I own that one,” or “That’s a good point.” Taking responsibility doesn’t always mean the person agrees with everything or is totally at fault. It just means they can acknowledge their role and understand their partner’s perspective. Also keep in mind that in situations where one partner may be perceiving criticism or contempt, it’s okay to acknowledge how they are feeling in that moment and attempt to shift the tone of the conversation. For example, “I’m feeling really defensive right now. Would you mind saying that differently?”
Contempt: The most damaging of the four horsemen, contempt, takes criticism to a new level by combining that character attack with our own superiority and disgust for our partner. It is often meant to hurt the other partner and cut them down. This can be expressed verbally through put-downs, sarcasm, or mocking behavior as well as nonverbally such as eye-rolling. For example, “Oh great, I see the kitchen is a disaster again. I forgot I can’t count on you to keep anything clean. It’s like you’re another child in the house and I’m the only adult around here.” The level of disrespect shown in this kind of contemptuous behavior creates major problems in a relationship. Out of the four horsemen, contempt one is known as the biggest predictor of divorce.
Antidote for Contempt: There are two ways couples can work to combat contempt. In the short term, partners should focus on respectfully describing their own feelings and needs and not their partner. Instead of the hurtful example above, a more adaptive statement could sound like, “I feel really frustrated with how messy the kitchen is right now. I spent so much time cleaning yesterday and it’s so defeating to see it like this again. I feel like I’m drowning and I really need your help in keeping things clean.” It’s more productive for a partner to express what they do need in order to feel supported rather than what they don’t want.
In addition to practicing this more respectful communication, the long-term antidote to contempt is to build a “culture of appreciation” between partners. This means the couple should express gratitude on a daily basis, focus on what they admire about each other, and regularly show they care in big and little ways.
Stonewalling: When conflict and resentment continues to build up, couples may see the fourth horseman known as Stonewalling. This involves one or both partners mentally and/or physically disengaging from each other (e.g., “Fine, just do whatever you want, I don’t care anymore.”) Sometimes this happens when feeling so overwhelmed that a person just shuts down. It may also occur when one partner remains quiet with the hope that it will prevent things from getting worse (this often backfires). Stonewalling could look like silence, avoiding, distracting, or physically walking away. This can be especially frustrating when one partner is still attempting to communicate.
Antidote to Stonewalling: Physiological self-soothing. When a person is so overwhelmed and physiologically flooded, continuing to discuss the topic will be ineffective. That individual is likely not processing information well and will not be able to communicate in healthy, productive ways without first taking a break. Once stonewalling is identified in a conflict discussion, it is important to take some time to calm down by engaging in self-soothing activities. Couples should avoid thinking about the problem, rehearsing how to communicate how “wrong” the other partner is, or focusing on perceived flaws in the other person. Instead, it would be more helpful to go for a walk, play with the dog, read a book, etc. These breaks should last at least 20 minutes to allow the mind and body to come down from such a physiologically aroused state, but not more than 24 hours as that could enable avoidance.
As couples learn more about these four horsemen and can recognize them during conflict, they become better equipped to shift disrespectful, unproductive communication and build a stronger connection. As we go through the holiday season, think about ways to build a whole culture of appreciation and express gratitude on a daily basis.