The Four Horsemen
Dr. John Gottman, world renowned Couples Therapist, is well known for his study where he can predict if the couple will stay together or get a divorce just by watching how they deal with a disagreement. His accuracy rate was remarkably over 90%.
He uses a metaphor of four horsemen to predict the end of the relationship. The four horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
In this post I will briefly discuss all 4 as well as their antidotes, tools that you can use instead, that will support the relationship instead of depleting it. In Couples Counselling we definitely want to pay attention to it.
Of course all of us have moments when we are critical about our partners. In itself, that doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed. It’s when criticism becomes pervasive, it’s when instead of asking for what we want or sharing how we feel, we attack our partner, leaving them feeling hurt and rejected, that's when we've got a problem.
The antidote to criticism is a soft or gentle start up , I statements instead of you statements, and non-violent or compassionate communication.
Think of it this way
Criticism: “ You never listen to me”
Gentle start up: “I have something to share, I would love it if you could just listen to me. When is a good time?”
Criticism: "You are such a slob."
Gentle start up: "I would love some help around the house. Can we please talk about it later today?" or "Can you please help me clean up the kitchen sometime today?"
Contempt is “the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn.” When contempt starts showing up in your relationship more and more often, it’s in trouble. Contempt goes beyond criticism, it attacks not just an action of a person, but their whole character from a position of moral superiority, with a judgment that something is wrong with them. It’s one of the greatest predictors of a divorce, and if you notice it, it’s very important to consciously stop it as soon as possible.
Contempt: “Really? You’ve got to be kidding me. You forgot to do the laundry again. How can anyone be so incredibly lazy?“
The antidote is respect, appreciation and kindness. It’s about the culture of your relationship. It’s about boundaries. It’s about knowing when to stop even when you have that perfect sarcastic remark, and not let it slip off your tongues.
Antidote: "I know you are tired, and stressed. I’m upset that this happened. I would really appreciate if you could do it soon."
Defensiveness is a pretty normal response to criticism. When we feel criticized, our first instinct is to defend ourselves.
So to a question or criticism of “You left your laundry all over the floor again, can’t you at least put it in the basket?” We respond with “My laundry? How about the state you left the kitchen in when you left for work this morning? It was a total disaster.” Or we say, "Don't you know how hard I have to work? If you were working this hard you wouldn't get anything done."
It’s "whose fault is it?" game, it’s pointing fingers, it’s who’s right and who’s wrong - and it never works. Because if I win, you lose, and the relationship loses too. No one is feeling heard in this game, no one gets what they need, no one is supported, and eventually no one feels safe.
Imagine being able to take a deep breath, and even if everything within you wants to defend, you say “you know what, you are right. I was feeling lazy. I forgot to clean it up. I see how you feel. Let me go pick it up”. Of course it’ll go a lot better if the first partner starts not with accusation or contempt ("what’s wrong with you, how can anyone be so incredibly messy"), but with a soft start up “babe, I’m really tired, I could really use some help. Could you please do your laundry today, it would really help.”
It’s the antidote to defensiveness - really hearing your partner and what they are saying, understanding the impact of your actions, taking responsibility for your part. It prevents escalation, leaves your partner feeling really understood and supported, and builds trust and safety that you can talk about and work through everything.
- "I think we don't talk enough"
- Defensive response: "It's never enough for you, don't you know how busy I am?"
- Antidote: "Are you feeling lonely, honey? You know I'm working on this project, but let's plan to sit down and talk as soon as I get this done today?"
The last horseman is stonewalling and it’s a response to conflict, criticism or contempt when the listening partner withdraws, shuts down or tunes the other partner out. They stop responding . The person might appear calm, but within they are usually overwhelmed. They don’t know how to react under an attack, so they shut down. It’s often a nervous system response, some of us go into a fight mode, but some into a flight, which can look like physically leaving the room, or it can look like being there, just being completely disconnected.
Unfortunately that usually provokes the other partner to escalate even more, in a futile attempt of being heard - that attack-withdraw pattern rarely works, but often becomes a habitual dance the couple can get stuck in.
The antidote to stonewalling - is calling a timeout, using a red light/yellow light tool the moment you start to notice you are starting to shut down, and self soothing. Self soothing means taking time for your body and nervous system to calm down. It takes at least 20 minutes of conscious effort, like breathing, going for a walk, listening to music, exercising or maybe taking a shower or a nap. It doesn’t work if you spend 20 minutes thinking of a smart reply to what your partner was saying, or going into a collapse state thinking of everything that’s wrong with you, your partner and your relationship.
In this pattern we either eventually blow up, when we can’t hold all of our emotions inside anymore, or shut down even more.
The antidote can be simply saying “babe, I’m sorry but I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed right now. I want to hear you, it’s important for me, but right now, I can’t stay present. Give me about 20 or 30 minutes, I’ll have a chance to relax a little and we can talk about it then.”
The job of the other partner is, of course, to understand this and as much as they might want to keep talking, as much as it might scare them or trigger some of their abandonment issues - it’s about building trust in the relationship that we can and will work through anything, we just need to be patient and gentle with each other.
Here you can watch a 2 minute video from the Gottman Institute :
Another resource is “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” by dr. Gottman, a brilliant, easy to read and practical book that I think can come handy for most couples at least at some point in their relationship.
I hope this was useful!