Drs. John and Julie Gottman, founders of The Gottman Institute, conceptualized the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse for relationships. These horsemen are behaviors that cause problems in relationships. In this blog, we will take a look at those 4 horsemen, or behaviors to avoid in relationships, and also the antidote to them.
About The 4 Horsemen Concept
Have you heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse referenced in the Book of Revelations in the Bible? They are Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. Religious views aside, these are meant to reveal the various stages of a perilous end for all of man-kind.
Now what about relationships? How many times have you heard, or maybe said, “I never saw that coming” when hard times arrive in the relationship? Conflict is inevitable from time to time in relationships, but there are significant differences in conflict between couples who use effective communication and conflict resolution and those who do not. The Gottman Institute lists the 4 Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse as Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. Below, we will take a look at each of these behaviors to avoid to understand them better and see the antidote.
This horseman can be especially insidious. It can easily be mislabeled as “feedback” or “constructive criticism.” While “constructive criticism” is offered with the intent to help or encourage growth (and never the intent to harm), the criticism horseman refers to overly hard, blaming behavior with hurtful, judgemental motives.
Antidote: Gentle Startup
Gentle Startup refers to addressing issues or conflicts in a blameless manner while maintaining a calm, peaceful demeanor. This may sound like a vague antidote, but it truly is as simple as you are thinking! Gentle Startup can be achieved by utilizing “I Feel…” statements, striving to avoid the use of “you,” remaining mindful of your tone and body language, and recognizing your surroundings (e.g., Is this the appropriate time and place for this discussion?). An example of this could be: I feel anxious when there are dirty dishes in the sink after a few days. Can the dishes please be done sometime tonight?
This horseman often manifests as constant shifting of blame and/or excuse making. For example, if your partner says: “You’re the one that started a fight!” How does that make you feel? Does that feeling make you feel compelled to fight back or defend yourself from treatment that feels unfair? That is the driving horse behind this horseman. When partners “volleyball” responsibility or blame back and forth during a conflict, it is typically a sign that both partners need to stop and check-in with themselves.
Antidote: Own Up To Your Part
Ironically, the antidote for this particular horseman is for partners to accept responsibility for their sides of the issue. It can be tempting to say “But I have no blame in this!”, but a partnership is an equal, collaborative relationship. That means even if you feel certain your partner is entirely to blame, you take the time and space within the conflict to look within and examine your own feelings and motives. Reframe your absorption of your partner’s feedback as an opportunity for growth, or at least resist the urge to take this feedback as a personal attack. Once you’ve identified your part in the conflict, take responsibility and apologize sincerely. An example of this could be: “I’m sorry I raised my voice. I can see I overreacted about what happened.”
This horseman is the most deadly and insidious of all. Contempt can be found when a partner says or does something with the intention to attack or abuse. Domestic violence is included in this horseman, but it includes more than this. Contempt can be seen when partners demean the other during conflict by name calling, attacking character, attacking things the partner loves (i.e., hobbies, family, friends), etc.
Antidote: Share Fondness and Admiration
First and foremost, breathe and try to lower your heart rate: three deep, lung filling breaths – in through the nose – HOLD – and out through the mouth. It is never acceptable to intentionally hurt the object of your love, your partner. So, when conflict arises and you’re struggling to resist the temporary satisfaction of making a ‘low-blow’, or engaging in contempt, put space between yourself and the issue that triggered this response. Remind yourself of all the things that made your partner ‘your person.’ What were those qualities that you admired so much? Does this one conflict immediately negate all of those positive qualities? The answer is most likely no, it doesn’t. Recognize the strengths held by your partner, and how you two interact as a team.
**If you are in an abusive relationship, help is available. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline online or at 800.799.SAFE (7233). If you feel that you are in immediate danger within your relationship, please contact your local emergency services for immediate support!
This horseman can make it feel like partners are “talking to a brick wall” or as though partners have lost touch completely. Stonewalling is when one, or both, partners emotionally withdraw, shut down, or go completely silent during the discussion of an important issue in order to avoid the discomfort that the conflict causes them.
Taking this small amount of time can be all the difference between you and your partner emotionally withdrawing and causing the conflict to get that much worse. Notice your muscle tension, and spend a few minutes rolling your neck and shoulders.Take a break from the conflict and each other to go do something that relaxes you. Schedule a later time and place to meet with your partner in order to finish the conversation when both of you have had time to regulate and can communicate clearly and effectively.
If you notice any of these horsemen in your relationship, we encourage you to take steps toward removing these behaviors! For partners struggling to avoid these behaviors, counseling can be beneficial to help establish healthy communication. If you are looking for couples counseling in Alabama, contact us today to learn more about our offices in Albertville, Huntsville, Jacksonville, and Jasper.
For more about relationships, you might enjoy:
- Five Tips To Grow Closer With Your Partner
- 10 Things To Know About Couples Counseling
- How Can I Reconcile and Reconnect After an Argument With My Partner
This article was written by Rachel Brewer, MS, ALC (under the supervision of Jay H. Byham, MS, LPC-S #0741) – a mental health professional at Garrett Counseling in Huntsville.