The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament; the Four Horsemen of Relationships is used to describe communication styles that, according to research, can predict the end of a relationship.
The following four communication strategies (horsemen) predict the outcome of a relationship:
Through his extensive research, Dr John M Gottman (1976 & 2000) identified four negative behaviours that spell disaster for any relationship. Identifying if you and/or your partner use any of these communication strategies is the first step to eliminating them and replacing them with healthy, productive communication patterns.
The First Horseman: Criticism
Criticising your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an attack on your partner at the core of their character. In effect, you are dismantling their whole being when you criticise. The important thing is to learn the difference between expressing a complaint and criticising:
- Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”
- Criticism: “You never think about how your behaviour is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish. You never think of others! You never think of me!”
If you find that you and your partner are critical of each other, don’t assume your relationship is doomed to fail.
The problem with criticism is that, when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen to follow. It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected and hurt, and often causes the perpetrator and victim to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity, which eventually leads to contempt.
The Second Horseman: Contempt
When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean – we treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.
Contempt goes far beyond criticism. While criticism attacks your partner’s character, contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over them. For example, “You’re ‘tired’? Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on the lounge like a child and play those idiotic video games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid. Could you be any more pathetic?”
Research by Greta Hysi (2015) even shows that couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, flu etc) than others due to weakened immune symptoms.
Contempt is fuelled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner which come to a head when the perpetrator attacks the accused from a position of relative superiority.
Most importantly, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. If you want to avoid this outcome, it must be eliminated.
The Third Horseman: Defensiveness
The third horseman is defensiveness and it is typically a response to criticism. We’ve all been defensive at some point in our relationships and this horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel unjustly accused, we fish for excuses and play the innocent victim so that our partner will back off.
Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take their concerns seriously and that we won’t take responsibility for our mistakes. For example:
- Question: “Did you call Belinda and Steve to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised you would this morning?”
- Defensive response: “I was just too busy today. You knew how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”
This partner not only responds defensively, they also reverse blame in an attempt to make it the other partner’s fault. Instead, a non-defensive response can express acceptance of responsibility, admission of fault and understanding of your partner’s perspective. For example: “Oh, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. That’s my fault. Let me call them right now.”
Although it is perfectly understandable to defend yourself if you’re stressed out and feeling attacked, this approach will not have the desired effect. Defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if the critical spouse does not back down or apologise. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner and it won’t allow for healthy conflict management.
The Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling
Stonewalling usually develops as a response to contempt.
Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down and simply stops responding to their partner. Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall can make evasive manoeuvres such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviours.
It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out”, however when it does, it frequently becomes a bad habit.
Unfortunately, stonewalling isn’t easy to stop. It is a result of feeling physiologically flooded which happens when our rational mind is flooded by our emotions and becomes disconnected – our nervous system is saturated and our pre-frontal cortex ceases to exercise its controlling function. When we stonewall, we may not even be in a physiological state where we can discuss things rationally.
If you feel like you’re stonewalling during a conflict, stop the discussion and ask your partner to take a break. For example: “Alright, I’m feeling too angry to keep talking about this now. Can we please take a break and come back to it in half an hour? It’ll be easier to work through this after I’ve calmed down.”
Then take those 30 minutes to do something alone that soothes you such as reading a book or magazine, taking a walk, going for a run. Just do anything that helps you to stop feeling flooded by your emotions and then return to the conversation once you feel ready.
Being able to identify the Four Horsemen in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them, however, this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication and conflict patterns, you must replace them with healthy, productive ones. Fortunately, each horseman has a proven positive behaviour that will counteract negativity.
Author: Merryl Gee, BSocWk, AMHSW, MAASW, MACSW, MANZMHA, MPACFA.
Merryl Gee is a psychotherapist working from a strengths-based, person-centred framework. With over 30 years’ experience, she has a particular interest people who have experienced trauma such as sexual assault or childhood sexual abuse.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychotherapist Merryl Gee try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422 .
- Gottman, John M. (1976) A Couple’s Guide to Communication, Research Press
- Gottman, John M. and Silver, Nan (2000) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide, Harmony Ink Press
- Hysi, Greta (2015) Conflict resolution styles and health outcomes in married couples: A systematic literature review, Research and Education “Challenges towards the future” Vol 2