The Four Horsemen of a Broken Relationship

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In the Sound Relationship House Series part IV, I mentioned the Four Horsemen. Today, I want to explain what the Four Horsemen mean in a relationship (and what to do about them).

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. Each horseman describes conquest, war, hunger, and death. In a relationship, each of the Four Horsemen describes a stage in a relationship that’s no sound.

The Four Horsemen

The First Horseman: Criticism

Criticism often occurs when we do not feel seen or heard by our partner. Consequently, we scan our environment for the reason we feel unhappy. This style of communication, more commonly used by women than men. That expression of disapproval of our partner and is based on personal beliefs and perceptions and not .in reality. When we criticize, we point out our partner’s faults and flaws, blaming them and making them feel like they themselves are the cause of the problem.

Being critical is different from registering a complaint. To be a more effective communicator and to create a stronger relationship, separate your needs from your emotions. Be very intentional with your words when communicating dissatisfaction.

To help couples learn this, The Gottman Institute has developed a simple method. Changing criticism into effective communication. To begin, use an “I” statement. Then, attach a feeling to that “I” statement and a reason for that feeling. Next, communicate to your partner what you need from them in order to feel more satisfied or heard.

For example: “I feel hurt when you don’t kiss me goodbye before you leave for work. I need you to take a minute to connect with me in the morning before you run out the door”. And remember, always be kind. Kindness is a very simple thing that goes a long way towards creating happiness in a relationship. Make a habit of focusing on the positive parts of your relationship rather than the negative ones. Put in the effort to make your partner feel seen and heard. To create and sustain a happy partnership, work together to create a culture of appreciation and communication.

The Four Horsemen

Second Horseman: Contempt

Whereas criticism is attacking your partner’s character, contempt is making them feel inferior because of who they are. People that feel contemptuous towards their partner feel superior to them. This makes them choose to only focus on their partner’s negative traits. Simply put, contempt is cruel and demeaning. This cannot be present in any relationship where two people want to connect and grow with one another.

Contempt can be expressed in many different ways. It can be verbal or non-verbal, it can show up as sarcasm, rudeness, or eye-rolling. We all know how awful it feels to be receiving contemptuous looks or a look of disgust. Dr. Gottman has discovered that out of all the Horseman, contempt is the single most damaging communication style. When it is present, it can indicate divorce.

To create connection, two people must rid their relationship of contempt. Simple ways to do this are by focusing on your partner’s positive characteristics. Look at him or her and see the good in them. In the Gottman Method, this is referred to as “Building A Culture of Appreciation”. This includes showing gratitude and fondness towards your partner. In other words, loving your partner for who they are and expressing this love to them.

Most importantly, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. It must be eliminated.

The Four Horsemen

Third Horsemen: Defensiveness

As a result of being criticised, we become defensive. This horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel unjustly accused, we fish for excuses and play the innocent victim so that our partner will back off. However, this strategy is rarely effective. 

This often shows up as a guard against criticism. When we feel criticized or put down, it is natural for us to want to defend ourselves against the attack. The result is that instead of apologizing, accepting responsibility for something we could have done better, and moving forward, we get defensive and turn the blame back onto our partner.

This style of communication causes our partner to feel unseen and unheard. Partners who get defensive against one another build walls between them. Instead of the mentality of, “it’s us against the world”, defensive partners allow conflict and communication to create barriers between the two of them.

Our excuses just tell our partners that we don’t take their concerns seriously and that we won’t take responsibility for our mistakes. Express acceptance of responsibility, admission of fault, and understanding of your partner’s perspective if you still want to save your relationship. 

The Four Horsemen

Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling

Stonewalling will most often occur when the first three horsemen have shown up so often and with such regularity in a relationship that one partner or the other becomes psychologically flooded and shuts down. Men are much more likely to stonewall than women, becoming so emotionally and mentally overwhelmed that they cannot interact anymore. The result is that their partners feel that they do not care.

Stonewalling behaviors include tuning out or going silent. Even if you are still in the same room as your partner, you may simply stop listening or responding to them. In the extreme, stonewalling may look like one partner getting up and leaving the room. If you notice this is happening, stop the argument and communicate to your partner that you need some time to regroup. This is a great time to practice self-soothing and engage in an activity that will help calm you, such as exercise, art, or reading. Eventually, partners will know themselves and each other so well that they will be able to self-soothe and soothe one another so effectively that stonewalling will no longer occur.

Drive away any possible communication problems and conflict patterns, replace them with healthy, productive ones.

Watch my Youtube video about these horsemen and I’ll share with you the antidote for each one. 

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