Slaying the Four Hoursemen

By Nadine Burgos, LMSW

"69% of the time, a couple’s conflict is about perpetual issues that never get resolved." - Dr. John Gottman

The Four Horsemen is a metaphorical account in the New Testament adapted by Dr. John Gottman as a tool for identifying the predictors for divorce/separation.  Conflict between couples doesn’t necessarily indicate that a relationship is doomed for failure. It is a normal and healthy part of relationships when it can be productively managed to help communicate needs to be met. Conflict can become problematic when couples lack the essential communication skills to work through disparities. Whether you are unsure of your partner’s or your own communication style, you may benefit from managing the predictors that will potentially dismantle your relationship.

1. Criticism

Criticism is corrosive to relationships.  When you criticize your partner, you are essentially contributing to the prospect that your partner may internalize and believe your negative proclamations to be valid. Eventually, resentment will brew and lead to defensiveness.  Ultimately, criticism prevents the underlying issue(s) from getting resolved. The potential risks of ongoing criticism may lead to other harmful Horsemen.  Examples of criticisms include:

  • Complaining with blaming, “You never think of anyone else!”.
  • Name calling and insulting, “You’re so selfish!”
  • A verbal attack on their character, “Seriously, what is wrong with you?”

If you are tempted to criticize your partner by pointing out their faults or shortcomings, try using “I” statement to focus on the problem rather than criticizing the other person.

Solution Statements: 

  • “I feel (feeling word) about (thought or belief) and I would appreciate (whatever it is you’d like to see happen). Can we talk about this?
  • “I’m feeling frustrated that we are running late and I would appreciate that you make an effort to avoid delaying us in the future.”

2. Defensiveness 

The problem with defensiveness is that one partner feels unheard and under attack while being criticized by the other. Sometimes, a partner may counter criticism with their own. Rather than attempt to ward off a perceived attack or blame, try accepting responsibility for any contribution you might have made to the problem.  Listen for the truth your partner is trying to convey underneath his/her complaint. Examples of defensiveness are:

  • Whining
  • Counter criticism
  • Playing the innocent victim

Solution Statements:

  • “I can see my part in this.  I’m sorry for (specific thing). Please accept my apology.  I want to be _____, and sometimes I just don’t know how. Can we rationally talk about how we can make things better?”
  • “I feel a criticized in all this.  I can see my part in it, and I’m sorry. Can we talk about our problem as a team?”

3. Contempt

Contempt breeds insecurity in relationships.  Contempt is any statement or nonverbal behavior that shows that a person is beneath consideration.  It may involve one partner focusing on the qualities they dislike in the other, while assuming themselves as “better than” and the other as “less than.” Contempt builds up and grows over time. If you are tempted to use contempt to intentionally insult or avoid your partner, try appreciating something about them instead.  Try to remember a loving moment and appreciate their value and worth. Also, try to find the common ground between you. This will decrease your desire to insult or avoid contemptuous behavior as you discover something you agree on. Examples of contempt are:

  • mockery
  • eye-rolling.
  • mean-spirited sarcasm

Solution Statements:

  • “I know this is OUR problem, and I appreciate that you want to discuss it.  Let’s find our common ground.”
  • “One thing I really admire about you is…”

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling is a form of dissociation that a partner engages in when they “shut down.” Someone who is stonewalling may physically and or mentally withdraw from the conversation, and may appear to be apathetic or dismissive. Most of the time, stonewalling occurs because a partner is feeling overwhelmed or emotionally flooded by the discussion. They may need some time to calmly reassess their thoughts and feelings as they relate to the conflict (CBT). Examples of stonewalling are:

  • Emotional and physical distancing from your partner.
  • Giving your partner the “cold shoulder” or the “silent treatment.”
  • Abruptly leaving a discussion without telling your parter where you’re going.

In order to avoid the temptation to stonewall, try your best to stay committed to reaching a resolution and engaged in a rational discussion.  You can also try to learn to identify the triggers that lead to either you or your partner feeling emotionally overwhelmed.  You may mutually agree to take a break, and calm down before you are ready to return to the conversation.  This way, your partner will understand that you are taking care of yourself, not trying to reject him/her.  On your break, try journalling your thoughts and feelings related to the conflict/event.  Challenge yourself to reduce the number of times, and duration of the breaks, so that you don’t fall into a pattern of avoidance. 

You can express your thoughts and feelings with the use of ‘I’ statements. You must also be willing to accept responsibility for where you might have contributed to the problem, and try to see your spouse as having value and worth in this moment.

Solution Statements:

  • “I’m feeling really hurt and overwhelmed right now. I think that it’s best that we both take a 'time-out.' I want you to know that this doesn’t mean that I don’t love you or that I don’t care. How about I make us both some tea and we can agree to calmly resolve this in 10 minutes?”

Nadine Burgos is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support with communication in your relationships, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.