Also known as, “The Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse”.
I realize the title of this blog has big ‘clickbait’ energy, but these four indicators come from decades of relationship research by John and Julie Gottman. After studying thousands of couples, they found four behaviors that escalated negativity and predicted divorce or the end of a relationship, hence the moniker, “four horsemen.”
However, even healthy couples will sometimes slip into these behaviors. As long as you can learn to recognize when these show up and consciously choose their antidotes and repair, you can protect your love from the corrosive nature of these negative patterns. The four horsemen are:
Criticism in Relationships
When I work with couples as a couples therapist or relationship counselor, one of the first things they learn to recognize is the difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint is about an issue, while a criticism attacks your partner.
More specifically, criticism makes the issue about your partner’s character or personality and blames them rather than examining the issue itself. An example would be, "I was scared when you were late and didn't call me" (complaint) vs. "You never think about how your behavior affects other people" (criticism). Criticism is harsh, judgemental, and it can make the recipient feel attacked and defensive which escalates conflict.
The antidote to criticism is soft startup and expressing a positive need. Soft startup is a way of expressing your concerns in a gentle and non-blaming way. A positive need communicates a hope or desire that could be a helpful alternative to the complaint.
To build on the example used above, you could add, "I was scared when you were late and didn't call me, next time could you let me know if plans have changed?" In this format of communication, the speaker is taking responsibility for their feelings and offering a solution which can be negotiated to the satisfaction of all parties involved.
Defensiveness in Relationships
You engage in defensiveness when you are trying to protect yourself from criticism and blame. This could show up as blaming the other person, making excuses, or attempting to justify the behavior in question. When you fail to acknowledge that you contributed in some way to a negative experience, it can leave the person bringing the complaint feeling like you don’t understand, don’t care, or are unwilling to address the issue.
This can escalate the conflict further because you are taking a fighting stance instead of a cooperative or listening stance. If you can learn to tolerate the discomfort of acknowledging your part in a problem and get curious about what that might be, you can move towards the heart of the issue (spoiler alert: it’s usually not about who should take the blame).
The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility. This does not mean assuming the blame, but rather recognizing the role you played in a dynamic. This involves listening (ideally with compassion and genuine curiosity) to your partner's concerns with the goal of understanding what contributed to the issue.
I personally struggle with defensiveness, so I know how hard it can be to feel misunderstood. One concept that is helpful for me when I am trying to avoid being defensive is focusing on the impact I had instead of focusing on my intentions.
Contempt in Relationships
Contemptuousness in relationships is the number one predictor of divorce! At the core, contempt is about communicating both your superiority and your partner’s inferiority. You show contempt when you are disrespectful through words, facial expressions, or body language. It can show up as belittling, mockery or sarcasm, disgust, and hostility.
Like criticism, contempt moves you away from the issue at hand and instead focuses your discontent at the other person. It is often a result of continued unhappiness and negativity in a relationship. You lose sight of why you fell in love with your partner and get stuck in a pattern of seeing the worst. When things get bad enough, contempt is a way you separate your vulnerable parts from the negative dynamics at play in the relationship.
The antidote to contempt is building a culture of appreciation, fondness, affection, and respect. By focusing on your partner as a whole (instead of exclusively emphasizing their weaknesses), you can remember why you are grateful for them, and how you grew to love and admire them.
Even during disagreement, you can still practice respect by avoiding name-calling and put-downs and treating them with kindness and consideration. If that is feeling inaccessible or you notice yourself feeling contemptuous towards your partner, try shifting the focus away from them and describe your own feelings and positive needs (not describing your partner).
Stonewalling in Relationships
The last of the four horsemen is stonewalling. This means shutting down emotionally, withdrawing, or blocking your partner out. This is an evasive maneuver that is usually defined by a refusal to communicate. Stonewalling typically results from feeling overwhelmed or being unable to cope with the conflict. For the party that initiated a discussion, this can leave them feeling frustrated and unheard which can intensify the issue.
The antidote to stonewalling is physiological self-soothing. If overwhelm is the problem, you have to de-escalate or down-regulate enough that you can re-engage. Taking a brief time out to calm down and collect your thoughts can be very helpful.
However, this requires good communication around what is going on for you. You can ask your partner to pause the communication for a few minutes (usually takes 20 minutes to re-regulate, if there is physiological flooding) and then take some time to de-stress. Once you're calm, you can come back to the conversation and try to communicate more effectively.
How Couples Therapy Can Help
As I mentioned initially, even good relationships experience conflict and it can be easy to slip into these behaviors. If you notice that these behaviors are showing up consistently or if these patterns are always present during conflict, you may want to consider getting some support.
In addition to learning and practicing these antidotes, a couples therapist can also provide additional skills and insight to get you out of gridlock and into dialogue around relationship issues.
At Catalyss Counseling, we offer couples therapy and relationship counseling for folks who need support navigating challenges or who simply want to improve their relationships. We also offer Relationship Process Groups that can help you recognize patterns and practice new ways of being when communicating with others.
If you’re interested in Couples Counseling, click here for a free 20-minute phone consultation, and get started today!
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Jessica Carpenter is an intern therapist with Catalyss Counseling who works with adults who have experienced stress or trauma to develop better self-regulation skills. Jessica is also a licensed massage therapist, yoga therapist, and TRE provider. She is passionate about making wellness accessible to everyone. Follow Catalyss Counseling on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.