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The Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse.

Updated: Feb 20, 2022

Don't let these communication styles destroy your relationships.

John Gottman is probably the most reknown couple therapist in the world.

Visit any therapist or counsellor in Singapore and you'll likely find that they are "Certified Gottman therapists". There are several levels of expertise to get certified in too.

One of the most useful pieces of knowledge he has uncovered through research are the destructive communication patterns used between couples that predict divorce and strain our relationships.

They are known as the Four Horseman, named after the metaphor in the bible's chapter Revelations, which depicts the end of times.

It's helpful to get to know these Four Horsemen and whether they are present in your relationships.

For example, looking back on my relationship with my wife, I'm certainly guilty of times when I've fallen into these traps. I'm now more mindful and remind myself to stop giving in to such behaviours.

In this article, I'll be sharing an overview of the Four Horsemen, but I will go more deeper into each horseman in following articles.

1) Criticism 🗣️

The first horseman is criticism. Let's face it, nobody really likes being criticised. We can all agree that, yes, criticism that is constructive is something we should embrace - but do we really need constructive criticism every single day?

It gets annoying.

Criticism usually gets confused with voicing a complaint. They are entirely different constructs altogether. The former is an attack on your partner's behaviour or characters, while a complaint is about voicing your needs.

Here's the difference:

  • Complaint: "I was hoping you'd come home earlier today. I made dinner for the both of us and wanted to spend a nice night together."

  • Criticism: "You are always out late and never home on time. You are selfish and forget that I'm around. You never think of me!"

Can you tell the difference? Here's a hint - one starts with "I" and the other starts with "you".

Note the remarkable difference this little change makes.

Criticism is usually the starting behaviour that paves the way for the other horsemen to follow. It might cause you or your partner to feel rejected, attacked, blamed or hurt.

As it increases in frequency and intensity, it leads to the next horsemen.

2) Defensiveness 😠

Defensiveness is about making excuses for your behaviour, reversing the blame on the other person, or playing the innocent victim so that the other person backs off.

When we are defensive, we commonly do so for our own self-interest, i.e. to protect our own ego.

I think we can all admit it to being defensive sometimes, but can you recall a time u were defensive even when it was your fault in the first place?

Oops, I made a mistake but I'm not going to admit it.

Here's what it looks like:

  • Criticism: "You are always out late and never home on time. You are selfish and forget that I'm around. You never think of me!"

  • Defensive response: "What! Don't you know how busy it has been at work for me lately? You complaining and complaining just shows how much you don't care for me."

You can see that being defensive is also about reversing the blame onto your partner. It's an attempt to redirect the fault to another person.

What might a non-defensive response be instead?

Well, think along the lines of acceptance of responsibility, admission of fault and understanding of your partner's perspective:

  • Non-defensive response: "Hey I'm sorry I'm back home late again. I know how important it is to you to spend time together. It's my fault, work has really been too busy. How about I try to come back earlier tomorrow?"

So remember, even though it's understandable that we might be defensive when we are stressed out or even when we feel like we are being attacked, it's not helpful to the relationship.

Think about it - what does being defensive actually achieve?

It only leads to you or your partner feeling unheard and that you or their concerns have not been listened to, which can eventually lead to...

3) Contempt 😈

This is actually the worst of all the four horsemen. According to Gottman, having one or both partner engaging in contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce.

When we communicate in contempt, we are being mean - we treat or get treated with disrespect, made to feel unworthy of love and feel despised as a human being.

This might involve calling or being called names, sarcasm or negative body language like eye-rolling or scoffing.

"You're back late from work because it's been busy? Pleaaaseee. I'm the one who's running around all day trying to get things done and I still manage to come back on time to make dinner for you. Can you give a more pathetic excuse? Stop being a loser."

According to Gottman's research, he found that couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to also suffer from physical sickness and ailment, e.g. cough and the falling sick with the flu.

Yes it is that bad. It must be eliminated, otherwise it can cause you or your partner to react by...

4) Stone-walling 🧱

Last but far from least, we have stonewalling, usually a response to the third horseman, contempt.

What happens when your partner is hurling fiery, verbal cannonballs at you all the time?

You put up more walls or defenses of course.

That's exactly what stone-walling is. It occurs when the listener withdraws from the conversation and chooses to shut down or simply not respond to their partner.

Rather than tackling the issue straight on, stone-wallers make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, acting busy, leaving the house, or engaging in obsessive behaviours like washing the plates or sweeping in silence.

It usually takes criticism and contempt to be overwhelming enough that stone-walling becomes an understandable "out", but done repetitively, stone-walling in itself becomes a destructive habit.

Some people also tend to stone-wall by nature. For example, you might happen to be a "non-confrontational" sort of person.

Yet, here's what happens when you frequently tend to stone-wall during a conflict - your partner's complaints go unheard, they feel invalidated and unjustified. Their frustration simmers and the problem goes on being un-tackled and unresolved.

If you tend to stone-wall during a conflict because it feels psychologically overwhelming for you, try letting your partner know and suggest a break instead:

"Alright. I'm feeling too angry to talk about this now. Can we take a 10 minute break and then come back in a bit. I'm overwhelmed right now and need some time to calm down".

Take the next 10 or 20 minutes to perform a healthy distraction - go for a walk, read a book, do whatever you like - then return to the conversation once you feel ready.

Remember, communication is healthy for the relationship. Ignoring conflicts isn't.

The antidote to the Four Horsemen.

Identifying the four horsemen is the first and necessary step to eliminating them. Next, we need to learn to replace them with healthy and more productive behaviours.

I'll share in upcoming articles the "antidote" to each of the four horsemen. For now, share this with your partner and discuss if any of the above patterns are present in your communication.

Stay tuned and take care!

Thanks for reading Kaya Toast for the Soul. May your relationships be happier and healthier. Learn to love better. Peace!


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