Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

Last week we discussed Gottman’s Four Horsemen the Apocalypse. Hopefully you are beginning to notice which horsemen you tend to use. As you grow in your self-awareness, you can begin to catch yourself and instead choose to communicate differently. Here is what Gottman has found to be the antidote to each of the four horsemen.

Rather than criticism, complain without blame. Practice using “I-statements” that reflect your thoughts and feelings. Rather than “you are always late!” (criticism), try “I feel unimportant when you show up late without calling.” Stick to communicating your feelings and needs rather than placing blame on your spouse.

Rather than contempt, build a culture of appreciation and respect. Each one of us wants to be loved. Curb contempt by intentionally communicating your love, respect, and appreciation towards your mate. This is built in small moments each day - be specific and genuine. “I really appreciate the way you handled the discipline with our kids today.” or “I’m so proud of the way you tackled that meeting, I know you have been stressed about it.”

Rather than defensiveness, accept responsibility. Rather than deflect blame, diffuse the situation by taking responsibility for whatever is your part in the issue. It takes two to tango. For example, “I can see how I may have contributed to your hurt feelings here. I apologize for not calling you to let you know I was going to be late.”

Rather than stonewalling, practice physiological self-soothing. Stonewalling often occurs when one or both partners is feeling emotionally flooded. The only way to re-engage well is to take some time to calm down. Perhaps you can go for a walk, practice breathing exercises, listen to music, journal, or go lie down. This break is truly a break, not a time to rehearse arguments or nurse wounds. It takes at least 20 minutes to physiologically calm down, so any attempts to resume the conversation sooner will not be fruitful. As a reminder, whoever is calling for the break is responsible for setting up another time to pick up the conversation again.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Marital researcher John Gottman has spent years identifying the strengths and downfalls of marriages. With over 40 years of research under his belt, he can predict with more than 90% accuracy whether a couple will stay together or get divorced. One of the predicting factors of divorce is the presence of toxic communication styles that Gottman has coined The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The presence of these alone does not mean that your marriage is doomed. In fact everyone uses some of these horsemen sometimes, even the Gottman's use them! Working to reduce their presence, however, will have a positive impact on your marriage. Let’s take a look briefly at each horsemen:

Criticism reaches far beyond naming a complaint or disappointment and instead attacks the character of your partner. A complaint voices a feeling about a specific behavior or incident; a criticism voices disapproval of your partner. For example, a complaint would be “I was really frustrated that you did not follow through on making that call like you said you would.” Criticism says “I knew I’d have to do this. You are so lazy and selfish!”

Contempt may manifest in a number of ways -- mimicking, mocking, belittling, eye-rolling, sarcasm, etc. The acts of contempt may be subtle or overt and often stem from underlying beliefs of the partner’s flaws. Contempt communicates from a place of superiority over the other partner. Gottman has found this to be the most deadly of the horsemen and the number one predictor of divorce. 

Defensiveness occurs when a partner does not take responsibility for their actions and instead defends him or herself in light of their partner’s complaints (or criticisms) and may even blame shift. Rather than solve the issue, this tends to communicate a lack of ownership or being accountable. Defensiveness is a very common horsemen in many relationships. 

Stonewalling is the idea of shutting out your partner during conflict, imagine a thick castle wall between you and your spouse. This may be demonstrated in tuning out, seeking distractions, turning away, acting busy in other tasks, not listening, and not letting your partner in emotionally. Sometimes stonewalling can occur after negativity from the other horsemen accumulates, and sometime sit can occur as a pattern of habit from childhood or other relationships.

Remember we all use these horsemen sometimes, and we tend to have a few favorites we tend to rely on the most. Take some time this week to notice when these 4 horsemen show up in your relationships. Self-awareness is the first step toward changing any behavior.