Relationships have the potential to bring us closeness and connection, but can also present us with communication challenges. The good news however, is that these challenges are not insurmountable. If you’re ready to dive deep into what is causing trouble, you can uncover solutions that will benefit your relationship for the long term.
One especially effective method is psychologist, Dr. John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse”— a theory revolving around 4 common behaviours that can be effectively curbed by countering them with healthier alternatives – or as Gottman refers to them – “antidotes.” During his research, he was able to predict with accuracy which relationships would end in separation and divorce based on the presence of these 4 indicators:
- Criticism – Criticism often shows up as negative demands placed upon one’s partner that are categorical and include labels. The focus of the demands is typically on what is not meeting the expectations of the critical partner. Criticism is rigid, incorporates judgement, and can feel one-sided.
An example of a critical statement: “You never care about what I need! You’re selfish and lazy with household responsibilities”.
- Defensiveness – Defensiveness serves to shut down communication. Usually when a partner becomes defensive it is done in an effort to stand up for their needs, however, this occurs at the detriment of listening. You can spot defensiveness when partners are no longer listening to each other and instead preparing their own counter attacks during an argument.
Defensive statement: “How could you ask me that! I work all day and I sacrifice so much for you – you should know I always give up what I want in order to make you happy!”
- Contempt – Contempt is not unlike resentment. It can take the form of disrespect, insults or verbal jabs targeting the essence of who a partner is. Contempt can also feel similar to what many refer to as “low blows”. Contempt was found in Gottman’s research to be the strongest predictor of separation and divorce.
An example of a statement of contempt: “I might have forgotten to take out the garbage but at least I’m not a bad parent – remember when you forgot to make the kids’ lunches?”
- Stonewalling – Stonewalling is damaging to relationships in that it shuts down communication completely. When one partner checks out entirely from the conversation and leaves the remaining partner to deal with the consequences on their own, stonewalling is at work. One partner may shut down, withdraw, or ignore the other; it often occurs as a reaction to contempt.
So, what can couples do once they spot “the Four Horsemen”?
Not only can couples become mindful of how to catch these behaviours, but they can also learn to nurture each horseman’s counterpart – if we know what to limit in our relationship, we can also know what alternative to add in. The Gottman Institute calls these alternatives “the Antidotes”.
Instead of using criticism to focus on what is not happening, express this need as the underlying wish. What is behind the critical demand? Typically, this can be communicated softly as a wish for more of something that would benefit the closeness of the relationship.
Instead of becoming defensive, try listening and reflecting back what you have heard from your partner – what is the message they are trying to communicate to you? Check back with them to see if you have heard the message clearly. If you need to defend your intentions, bring this forward afterwards while still acknowledging and accepting responsibility for their concerns.
Rather than expressing contempt, really look to what hurt is underneath it. What is the hurt that needs to be acknowledged or attended to by your partner? Contempt can protect us from being vulnerable, but it also creates further emotional distance and pain in the relationship. Stop holding in resentment. Instead, bring forward what need is not being met or expressed. Remind yourself that your partner has good qualities that brought you together, even when the relationship is challenging.
In place of stonewalling, try using time-outs during conflict. Do not wait for things to build past the point of no return to remove yourself. Many couples develop a code word or phrase that allows one partner to signal that they need to take some time away from the conversation. This time away is then used to soothe their distress so that they can return some time later, less emotionally charged. This can be a useful tool to prevent escalation and shut down responses.
It is important to remember that every relationship will likely have some presence of “the Four Horsemen”. The fact that they are at work does not mean that a relationship is doomed to fail but instead presents an opportunity to improve communication and closeness. Try introducing a discussion into your relationship about these indicators and engage your partner with the antidotes that can help to keep the horsemen at bay.
Written by: Jennifer Goldberg, M.Ed., RP, CCC.
Gottman, J. M. (1993). A theory of marital dissolution and stability. Journal of family psychology, 7(1), 57.
Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Gottman, J., Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1995). Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. Simon and Schuster.
Lisitsa, E. (2013, April 23). The four horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/