Eliminating the Four Horsemen

By Carrie Jones

               Contrary to popular belief, research has shown that it’s not the “big” issues such as infidelity that most often lead to the breakdown of marriages; rather, it is the “little” things that build up over time, such as poor communication between partners.  Actually, this is probably true for any type of relationship, not just marriage.  Although some relationships end with a bang or deteriorate as a direct cause of one big factor, most slowly fizzle over time due to lack of care and attention or unhealthy patterns of interaction. 

               John and Judy Gottman, well-known and highly successful marriage therapists, identify four destructive patterns of interaction that are consistent predictors of divorce – criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.  They call these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (a Biblical reference to one of the signs of the end of the world).  Fortunately, they also offer the antidotes to each of these Horsemen.  Learning these basic communication skills can not only save your marriage, they also can help you interact more positively with others in your life, whether it be with your children, coworkers, boss, or friends.  Here they are:

Horseman Number 1: Criticism

The Antidote: Use Gentle Start Up

As defined by the Gottmans, criticism is stating one’s complaints as a defect in the other party’s character.  For example, a parent who is annoyed that there is clutter all over the kitchen table might yell at the kids that they are all slobs.  The antidote, Gentle Start Up, involves talking about one’s own feelings and then expressing a positive need (a wish, a hope, or a desire).   So, in this example, the parent could state that he or she doesn’t like having to spend an extra 10 minutes clearing off the table before each meal and ask that the kids help out by all putting away their own belongings on a regular basis. 

Gentle Start Up techniques also include being aware of the timing of a potentially emotionally charged conversation (ie, not right when someone walks in the door after a long day at work or school) and starting the conversation off gently and on a positive note before gradually moving into the heart of the matter.

Horseman Number 2: Defensiveness

The Antidote: Take Responsibility

Defensiveness is self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim-hood and is an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.  Defensiveness generally shuts down open communication and prevents conversation from moving forward in a constructive manner.  The antidote is taking responsibility for even part of the problem.

Example:  An employee might protest to an angry boss that the completion of a certain project wasn’t his responsibility and that everyone always blames him for everything.

Antidote: The employee could admit to being confused about the expectations and the deadline.

Horseman Number 3: Contempt

The Antidote: Build Culture of Appreciation

Contempt, the most dangerous of all the Horsemen, refers to statements that come from an assumed position of superiority.   It goes beyond criticism which just attacks one aspect of a person’s personality to actually conveying complete disrespect or dislike.  Perhaps a wife is frustrated that her husband failed to bring home all the items on the grocery list and calls him an idiot and says he never gets anything right.  The antidote is to foster a culture of appreciation and respect.  Studies have shown that the healthiest relationships have a ratio of at least five positive interactions/comments to every negative one.  In the case of the grocery item mix up, the wife could express appreciation to the husband for helping out with this chore and for caring for and providing for the family before pointing out that an item or two are missing.

Horseman Number 4: Stonewalling

The Antidote: Do Physiological Self-Soothing

Stonewalling is when one or both parties emotionally withdraw from the interaction.  This might mean physically leaving the room or even just mentally checking out – or giving the appearance of having checked out. The antidote is for the stonewaller to find ways to self-sooth when he recognizes that he is moving into a point of physiological arousal (racing heart/thoughts, shortness of breath, flushed cheeks, etc).  Once this point is reached, it is next to impossible to have productive and constructive discussion or even to respond logically.

Example:  Two friends are discussing a sensitive topic that they don’t agree on.  As the discussion gets more heated, one friend storms away, leaving the conversation unfinished and the issue unresolved.

Antidote:  She could have asked for a few minutes (or even a day or two!) to calm herself down and collect her thoughts and then set a time to finish the conversation when her emotions are a little more under control.

Chances are that as you read through these, you were able to recognize a few Horsemen that have crept into some of your own relationships.  This is fairly normal – as you can see from the pie graph below, relationships are the number one issue that people seek counseling for at Community Center Shanghai.  With some basic recognition of the Four Horsemen and a little effort and attention in applying the antidotes though, you can become a pro at enhancing your relationships.

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