Beware The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Many couples find it difficult to accept that it is not the presence of conflict that indicates a troubled relationship. Conflict is inevitable and a normal and even healthy part of a relationship. It’s how you deal with conflict that can potentially be problematic. 

Research has shown there are certain kinds of negative communication styles which are so destructive, they signal the end of a relationship. Internationally renowned relationship expert and best-selling author, John Gottman called these, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a metaphor used to describe four markers or counterproductive behaviours that are so lethal, they predict relationship failure if they aren’t changed.  This is because each of these corrodes the love that is at the core of an intimate relationship. In naming these behavioural patterns, Dr Gottman obtained inspiration from biblical references to The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively which heralded the end of times in the New Testament.  

In relationship terms, The Four Horsemen are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. Let’s look at these in the order that they usually appear according to Dr Gottman.

Criticism refers to attacking or putting down your partner’s personality or character rather than his or her behaviour itself. When you criticize your partner you are basically implying that there is something wrong with him or her. Using generalizations and words: “You always” or “You never”You’re the type of person who …” “Why are you so …” are common ways to criticize someone and is usually done with the intent of making you right and your partner wrong.

The problem: When you criticize your partner, you’re suggesting that the problem is him or her.

Negative consequence: Your partner is most likely to feel under attack and to respond defensively.

Criticism is the first horseman because it is the first behaviour that is typically used by couples in conflict.

Contempt is any statement or non-verbal behaviour that attacks your partner's sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse him or her. It communicates disgust and condescension and puts you on a higher ground ("I'm smarter/better/kinder than you are"). It may include belligerence - declaring an all out war on one another.

Contemptuous behaviour shows blatant disrespect for your partner. It includes but is not limited to: eye rolling, sneering, insults and name-calling, hostile humour, sarcasm and mockery.

The problem: There is an underlying mindset in a contemptuous person, fuelled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the other person. Nothing is more destructive to love. You’re more likely to have such thoughts if your differences are not regularly resolved after they occur.

Negative consequence: Of all the horsemen, contempt is the most serious as these types of put downs will destroy the fondness and admiration between partners.

 Defensiveness is an attempt to protect yourself, to defend your innocence or to ward off a perceived attack. Making excuses (“It’s not my fault…”, “I didn’t…”), cross-complaining (meeting your partner’s criticism with a complaint or criticism of your own) and yes-butting (start off agreeing but end up disagreeing) are all forms of defensive behaviour.

Although it’s understandable that people would defend themselves when criticised, this approach rarely works. The attacking person does not usually back down or apologise. This is because defensiveness is really another way of blaming. It’s in effect saying: “it’s not me, it’s you”, and it escalates the conflict.

The problem: The problem with defensiveness is that it sends out the message that you will not be impacted or influenced by what your partner has to say.

Negative consequence: Defensiveness keeps partners from taking responsibility for problems and escalates negative communication. You do not acknowledge that which is true in what they are saying about your behaviour. Partners who feel that they have no impact feel discounted and often become angry in response to defensiveness. They might escalate the fight to get their point across.

Stonewalling happens when rather than confronting the issues with your partner, you take evasive action such as tuning out or turning away. You simply become non-responsive. You might actually physically leave the room or withdraw from the interaction while staying in the room. Common responses include stony silence, monosyllabic answers or changing the subject.  Non-verbal behaviour may include not maintaining eye contact or crossing one’s arms.

Stonewallers may look like they don’t care but that isn’t necessarily the case. They may actually be overwhelmed internally and are trying to calm themselves.  According to Dr Gottman, 85% of stonewallers in marriages are husbands because men tend to become emotionally “flooded” quicker, that is, they are more easily physiologically aroused by marital conflict than women.

The problem: Stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation and disconnection.  It seldom works because your partner is likely to assume you don’t care enough about the problem to talk about it and finds it very upsetting to be ignored. Often she will attempt to re-engage you by escalating the conflict. It can be a vicious circle with one person demanding to talk and the other looking for escape.

Negative consequence: When you stonewall regularly, you are pulling yourself out of the relationship instead of attempting to work on it. By turning away from conflict, you are turning away from relating to your partner and ultimately, from the relationship.

Reining in The Four Horsemen

If you and your partner cannot engage in conflict in a constructive manner without using The Four Horsemen consistently, you have some work to do if you want to ensure the success and happiness of your relationship.  To do that, you have to change a lot of things in your way of relating. These patterns of interaction have to be recognized and stopped and you need to learn safer and more effective ways to talk about your differences.

 In the next post, I will be looking at some antidotes to The Four Horsemen.