The Four Horsemen of the (Relationship) Apocalypse

Professor Emeritus in Psychology at the University of Washington John Gottman is renowned for his work on relationships using direct scientific observations. Recognized in 2007 by Psychotherapy Networker Magazine as one of the ten most influential therapists of the past quarter-century, his research showed that it “wasn't only how couples fought that mattered, but how they made up. Marriages and partnerships became stable over time if couples learned to reconcile successfully after a fight.”

Throughout his 40 years of relationship research, Gottman has identified what he calls “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”, four behaviors that are key indicators of a relationship’s demise. These behaviors as well as how to avoid them are topics of Gottman’s relationship workshops and were outlined in his Relationship blog.

One: Criticism

WHAT IT IS:

Criticism is vastly different than a complaint (i.e not taking out the trash, or calling the plumber) in that complaints focus on a specific behavior while criticism attacks a person’s character. The intent of this verbal confrontation is to cause another person emotional pain. 

HOW TO AVOID IT:

1. Consider what is at the root of your discontent before criticizing your partner. Take a moment to identify the real issue and change that from a critique into a complaint.

For example, instead of, “You always forget to put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher” reword this as “I would really appreciate it if you would put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher.”

2. Refrain from saying everything that is on your mind. Just as we filter ourselves in other relationships and encounters, we should also practice this with our partners. Take time to calm down and prepare how to approach your significant other in a manner that is non-confrontational and kind.  

3. Turn criticism into a wish. We can avoid criticizing by sharing in a gentle manner how we are feeling and what we need from our partner.

Two: Contempt

WHAT IT IS:

“The sulfuric acid of love,” contempt is by far the worst of the “four horsemen” and is the primary indicator of the death of a relationship. Behaviors include sarcasm, eye-rolling, name-calling and hostile humor. 

HOW TO AVOID IT:

1.     Tell our partner what is true for us rather than what is wrong with them. When we make our significant other feel inferior, this builds resentment and whittles away at the bonds of love, respect and appreciation.  Instead of acting superior, we should share our feelings and needs rather than concentrating on our partner’s faults.

2.     Show our loved one how much we value and appreciate them. Contempt is a result of either partner feeling undervalued and unappreciated. It is important to express our gratitude daily. Thank them for making coffee in the morning, taking the dog for a walk, putting the dishes in the dishwasher. Saying thank you goes a long way.

3.     The problem is the problem. When we act and speak with contempt, we are saying, “You are beneath me.”  We need to be thoughtful in our words and actions and refrain from putting the blame on our partner for problems. “Your partner isn’t the problem, the problem is the problem,” says therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw.

Three: Defensiveness

WHAT IT IS:

According to Gottman’s website, defensiveness is “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in attempt to ward off a perceived attack.” We are being defensive any time we play the “blame game.”

HOW TO AVOID IT:

1.     Be sympathetic. By really listening to what our significant other is saying, we can usually find something with which we can agree. Saying, “I see your point” goes a long way toward mutual understanding and a constructive resolution of the issue at hand.

2. Tell your partner you’re feeling under attack. Often, defensiveness kicks in when our significant other is upset because of something we did or didn’t do. It’s natural to come to our own defense in these situations but we nip defensiveness in the bud by communicating how we feel. “I know you’re upset that I didn’t call the bank today and that makes me feel defensive. I’m really sorry and will do it tomorrow.”

3.     Apologize. Gottman’s research discovered that “masters of relationships” take responsibility for their part in the issue at hand. Instead of becoming defensive, they hear their partner out, take a deep breath and say, “I’m sorry. I take responsibility for that. Let’s figure out a solution together.”

Four: Stonewalling

WHAT IT IS:

Stonewalling occurs when one partner withdraws from an interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off. Instead of dealing with the issue at hand, they become unresponsive and basically “check out.” Stonewalling behavior includes tuning out, retreating to another room, acting busy or giving your partner the silent treatment.

HOW TO AVOID IT:

1.     Recognize the physical signs. These “fight or flight” responses include a rapid heart rate, shallow breathing and difficulty processing thoughts.  When we are aware of our body’s physiological response to an upsetting encounter, we can employ ways to calm ourselves down.

2.     Tell your partner you need a time out. When we start to feel overwhelmed, rather than stomping off or tuning out, it is best to let our partner know we need a break to calm down and gather our thoughts before continuing the conversations.  The length of time varies from person to person but should be at least 20 minutes and no longer than 24 hours.

3.     Return to the conversation. Time outs should be used as a way to compose ourselves rather than avoid the conflict. It is critical to the health of every relationship to resolve conflicts. After that time out, it is important to reconvene with a renewed calmness to continue the conversation and arrive at a mutually acceptable solution.

According to Dr. Gottman, to make their relationship last, couples must become better friends, learn to manage conflict and create ways to support each other’s hopes and dreams. Combining the knowledge and wisdom of nearly forty years of studies and clinical practice, Gottman helps couples break through barriers to achieve greater understanding, connection and intimacy in their relationships.

Being aware of and avoiding these four harmful behaviors - criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling – is a key step to opening up constructive communication, enabling positive conflict resolution and deepening our relationships. 

I recommend everyone refer to this checklist on a daily basis in order to achieve better relationship results.