Relationships are living messy things, with plenty of ups and downs. Although we strive for the ups, we need to embrace the downs as well.
All healthy relationships include doses of conflict. The trick to maintaining a strong relationship isn’t to avoid the conflict but to manage it in ways that are constructive and bring you and your partner together rather than pulling you apart.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute created The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a metaphor referencing the end of the New Testament, used to help you recognise and navigate 4 pitfalls of combative conversations. Instead of having destructive arguments, they aim to help you develop constructive communication patterns.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
The Four Horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. If these behaviours are present in your relationship, it’s over 90% likely that they’ll destroy your relationship. They have a significant impact. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of them and apply their solutions.
Each of the Four Horsemen has a solution when used in place of its horseman, helps you and your partner build your relationship up instead of tearing it down.
Image: Gottman Institute
Horseman #1: Criticism
Criticism is when your comments attack your partner or their character, instead of complaining about a behaviour. These comments make your partner feel attacked, rejected, and hurt. Criticism is the gateway horseman, as it opens your partner up to be vulnerable to the other 3 horsemen.
Solution: Use a gentle startup
To counteract criticism, talk about your feelings using “I statements”. This approach focuses the conversation on your needs rather than your partner’s faults. Express a constructive need and allow your partner the opportunity to fill that need.
Criticism: “You’re so inconsiderate!”
“I” statement: “I need a quiet space to complete this task. I would appreciate it if you would listen to your music on your headphones for a little bit.”
Horseman #2: Defensiveness
Defensiveness is when you feel attacked and try to protect yourself by painting yourself as the victim. You try to spin the situation around to blame your partner. Neither one of you is accepting any responsibility for the circumstance
Solution: Take responsibility for your feelings
To counteract defensiveness, take responsibility for your part in the conflict, even if it’s only a small portion. If you both take responsibility, the conflict becomes about solving the problem together instead of fighting against each other.
Defensiveness: “I am not talking too loud!”
Responsibility: “I’m sorry. I could have come closer to talk instead of shouting from the other side of the room.”
Stonewalling is when you withdraw from a conversation and refuse to engage anymore. The objective is to avoid conflict and create a sense of distance and separation. Stonewalling usually happens gradually after the other horsemen are already active in your relationship.
Solution: Practice physiological self-soothing
To counteract stonewalling, take a time-out. Step away from the conversation for at least 20 minutes and do some self-soothing activities. Self-soothing, such as listening to music, stretching out your muscles, or taking a shower, makes you feel calmer and relaxed so that you’re in a better headspace to address the conflict.
Stonewalling: “Just forget it.”
Self-soothing: “I need to take a break from this conversation. I’m going to go and do [soothing activity], let’s check in again in 20 minutes.”
Horseman #4: Contempt
Contempt is the feeling of superiority, with which you regard your partner as mean, vile, or worthless. When you act with contempt, you attack your partner’s sense of self with the intent to insult or abuse, sometimes from a place of disgust. This disregard grows from longstanding negative thoughts about a partner and is the single greatest predictor of divorce
Solution: Build a culture of appreciation
To counteract contempt, treat one another with respect. You don’t want to make your partner feel inferior. Think of your partner’s positive qualities and express gratitude for positive acts. Appreciation breeds positive feelings towards your partner instead of festering negativity.
Contempt: “You’re so stupid, what an idiot!”
Appreciation: “Thanks for trying. I appreciate your help.”
Watch Dr. John Gottman below discuss the 4 horsemen in relationships as he shows some real-life examples.
What to do
If you’re concerned that the Four Horsemen are impacting your relationship, you can take the Gottman Couple Check-up. It’s a tool that evaluates your relationship’s strengths and challenges and can be completed with a qualified relationship counsellor.
I use the Gottman Couple Checkup with almost all the couples I work with as it gives a great baseline report of your strengths and vulnerabilities in your relationship.
Conflict is normal and healthy in relationships. The way you manage conflict in your relationship has a significant impact on the success of your relationship. When the Four Horsemen enter your conflict dialogues, that’s a warning of serious problems in your communication. These problems often result in the destruction of a relationship, so it’s essential to be aware of them and work to counteract them.
Do you need relationship help?
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available for Kindle on Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.