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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Are they negatively affecting your relationship?

2130 days ago

One maxim that holds true for almost every relationship is that the effort you put in bears fruit. Putting in work is both worthwhile and necessary, contributing to your long-term success and happiness in your relationship. One of the areas you can put in this work is in improving your communication. Relationships can be a lot more rewarding and run much smoother when both members are able to effectively speak their mind and feel heard by their partner.

Dr. John Gottman has an interesting metaphor to showcase several methods of effective and ineffective communication: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which he uses to discuss four problematic methods of communication and propose effective means of remedying them. In his article, he discusses criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. All of these methods of communication are to some degree natural. They may be present, benign for now, in your relationship, but will undoubtedly pose problems if they start to take over.

Criticism is more than a simple surface level critique aimed at healthy discussion or improvement. It’s not constructive in nature, but attacks a partner for who they are. Rather than aiming to help and spark healthy discussion, criticism aims to hurt.

Contempt, like criticism, is about one partner attacking another. This communication is characterized by real venom, with mocking, ridicule, and serious disrespect all common themes. Contempt may speak to deeper issues in a relationship as it stems from long-standing negative, contemptuous thoughts one partner has about the other.

Defensiveness is a protectionist mechanism which rears its head when one partner believes the other is persecuting or targeting them unjustly. Based on this perceived injustice, they get their back up, making excuses, laying blame, and acting just as aggressively with their partner as they inaccurately believe their partner has been with them. A defensive partner may escalate of otherwise normal everyday interactions.

The last Horseman is stonewalling. Stonewalling can probably more accurately be described as the absence of communication than as communication itself, as this is a series of methods by which the communicator totally withdraws from the conversation, trying to avoid the discussion and/or offering only token responses to the issue at hand

These four methods of communication are surprisingly common and they can pose a serious threat to the long-term health of a relationship. In a 1989 longitudinal study of marital satisfaction, Gottman found evidence of links between three interaction patterns and marriage deterioration; defensiveness and withdrawal were two of them. But luckily their presence need not spell disaster. There are numerous effective strategies which can be used to counter The Four Horsemen and Gottman’s article highlights several of them.

In lieu of criticism, he advocates a gentle start up, where partners express their feelings with an “I” statements, rather meeting each other with aggression. He offers a culture of appreciation as an alternative to contempt; focusing and expressing gratitude for positive attributes is much healthier than fixating on negatives. Gottman suggests taking responsibility for words and actions and making a genuine effort at amends as a much better alternative to defensiveness. Lastly, he offers up physiological self-soothing– self-focused, calming, distracting activity- as a productive use of time spent apart due to stonewalling.

In that same 1989 study, Gottman also found that general disagreement and anger were not necessarily harmful in the long run. Individuals, even husbands and wives, need not and will not agree on everything, and anger is, unfortunately, a natural part of the human experience, but there are natural ways to work through them. What you need to remember is that your relationship is just that, yours, and you need to take every opportunity you can to improve it. If you do come across any of the Four Horsemen, just remember, you are in control. Take matters into your own hands, and together with your partner, take an active role in shaping the future of your relationship.

  1. Marital interaction and satisfaction: A longitudinal view. By Gottman, John M.,Krokoff, Lowell J. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 57(1), Feb 1989, 47-52
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