The Four Horsemen of Relationships:
Learn how to recognize unhealthy conflict habits and improve your communication
Co-authored by Sybil Ottenstein, MHC-LP and Celine Gonzalez
Couples therapist Sybil Ottenstein talks about how to improve your communication habits and build vulnerability, honesty and trust:
Since the 1970s, The Gottman Institute has studied thousands of couples interacting while tracking their relational satisfaction over time. Research into relationships has helped to predict which couples are more likely to build long-lasting, healthy relationships and which couples will most likely end in divorce.
For those relationships that dissolve, The Gottman Institute found 4 key predictors: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
Gottman named these destructive communication habits The Four Horseman in reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament. These four horsemen – conquest, war, hunger, and death – signaled the end of times.
When these habits are engaged occasionally, they don’t signal doom and gloom. What is important is that we recognize when they are happening, make “repairs” when possible, and work towards continually practicing healthier communication habits.
Let’s look at each habit in more detail:
Criticism is the act of noticing a specific problematic behavior and turning it into a global attack on your partner’s personality. You can catch yourself using criticism when you say words like “never” or “always” when describing something about your partner’s behavior. When you criticize your partner, you are implying that there is something wrong with them, and your partner is most likely to respond defensively.
Criticism is different from a complaint. Issuing complaints is a normal and healthy way of communicating frustrations within a relationship – if no one is complaining, then silent resentment can build over time. While a complaint focuses on a specific issue, criticism attacks a person’s character.
The antidote to criticism is what Gottman refers to as a “gentle startup.” A gentle startup starts with expressing what you noticed, then sharing your feelings using “I” statements, and finally expressing positive need. In this example, a criticism might sound like, “You never call me. You always ignore me,” while a gentle startup might sound like, “When you don’t call me during the day, I feel hurt and become worried that you don’t care. It would mean a lot to me if you would give me a ring tomorrow.” This set-up allows you to take responsibility for your feelings without creating an environment of blame and defensiveness.
Defensiveness occurs when you attempt to defend yourself from a perceived attack with a counterattack. Instead of inviting partners to take self-responsibility and generate empathy, defensiveness fuels and escalates negative communication styles.
When people get defensive, they might over explain (“I would’ve called you, but xyz happened, and…”), counter-criticize (“You are so needy, nothing is ever enough for you”), or take on a victim mentality (“I’m never good enough for you”).
Defensiveness may make your partner feel as though their needs are not being heard. This can amplify the disconnect and perhaps also amplify the criticism, and so the toxic cycle continues.
The antidote to defensiveness is to hear your partner’s complaint and accept responsibility for your part, no matter how big or small. In addition, while it can feel challenging to validate their perception, it can go a long way towards building and maintaining healthy relationships. For instance, “I get you’re disappointed you didn’t hear from me all day. I could’ve sent you a text to let you know that today was particularly busy.”
Contempt is any statement or behavior that puts you on a higher ground than your partner through utilizing shame and mean-spirited sarcasm. Contempt can come across as cynicism, name-calling, eye rolling, sneering in disgust, or mockery. According to Gottman, contempt is akin to “sulphuric acid for a relationship” and by far the greatest predictor or relationship failure of all the Four Horseman.
The antidote to contempt is to lower your tolerance for contemptuous statements and behaviors and together, to work on building a culture of appreciation within the relationship. This means noticing what your partner is doing right and expressing your appreciation. You will need to build new communication skills to share your feelings.
You’ll need to learn how to narrate your inner emotional landscape instead of attacking the other person. For example, “I can feel my body becoming red with anger, and there’s a part of me that wants to roll my eyes and say something really hurtful. But I know that’s not helpful. I want you to know how I’m feeling so we can fix this together.” While this is by no means an easy task, it is absolutely necessary to reduce, repair and ultimately stop contemptuous exchanges.
Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the conversation prior to resolution. The stonewaller may shut down, give the “silent treatment”, or they may walk out of the conversation altogether. For the person experiencing the stonewalling, it may seem like their partner doesn’t care about them.
The person stonewalling is likely in a state of physiological flooding and nervous system distress, which occurs when the body detects a threat. When this happens, the part of our brains responsible for relating and connecting goes offline and is not possible to have a productive conversation.
The antidote to stonewalling is for you or your partner to identify the signs of emotional overwhelm and agree to take a break. The stonewaller can then take the time to regulate their nervous system and self-soothe, whether it’s through practicing deep breathing or going for a walk. Then, it is important that the person who took the break comes back to the relationship when they’re feeling calm. This step builds trust in the relationship.
Everyone is bound to use one or more of The Four Horsemen at some point in their relationships. As you get better at identifying them, you’ll be better equipped to repair them in the moment. When we learn to recognize The Four Horsemen and replace them with new skills, conflict can transform into opportunities for building honesty, vulnerability, and trust.
Bird, Layla (Photographer). (2019). They’ve turned their backs on constructive communication [digital image]. Retrieved March 20th, 2022, from https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/theyve-turned-their-backs-on-constructive-communication-gm1158540191-316501352