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Couples Communication: What are The Four Horseman (Gottman)

What do you do when you feel that your partner has really hurt you and has caused a wound that you feel can never be healed? Many of us have an innate way of responding that maybe we don’t give much thought to. Do you remove yourself into a shell, building more resentment, isolating yourself from the ones you love to protect yourself from more pain? Do you shut down and sit silently with a blank stare on your face, in an almost freeze like response? Out of your own pain, do you speak mean riddled words back to your love one, to have them feel the pain you are currently feeling?

One of the greatest parts of healing is to be aware of your response to pain and to work on turning it around. John Gottman, a well-known researcher in the world of couples and marriage counseling, created and speaks often of the Four Horseman of the Apocolypse. He shares that there are four main ways that couples respond to one another in pain. And then he shares some antidotes in repair.

As we quickly review these, take a moment to think, ‘is this my style of response to pain to my partner’? Do I do this? And even more, does it help me get to the place of turning towards my partner, to look at the pain, acknowledge the pain and repair the pain? Remember, healing can begin with you!

The four Horseman of the Apocolypse

  1. Criticism is criticizing your partner. It is an attack on your partner at the core of their character.

The important thing is to learn the difference between expressing a complaint and criticizing:

  • Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”

  • Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish. You never think of others! You never think of me!”

It is not a problem if you find yourself or your partner to be critical. It is a problem if you do not work on altering it. It creates feelings of assault, rejection and hurt and if not attempted to turn around, will lead to the end of a couples ship and will eventually lead to the next horseman

Antidote: Speak of feelings using I statements. Reference back up to complaint versus criticism.

  1. Contempt: communicating truly mean, disrespecting, mocking, being sarcastic, name calling, mimicking, and negative body language like eye-rolling, heavy sighing. The purpose of contempt is to make the other feel worthless. Contempt is worse than criticism. Contempt assumes a position of moral power over the other.

Contempt: “You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic video games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid. Could you be any more pathetic?”

Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner, most importantly being the single greatest predictor of divorce.

Antidote: treat one another with respect. And illuminate Contemptuousness.

  1. Defensiveness is typically a response to criticism. We’ve all been defensive. We participate in it when we feel unjustly accused. We all have played a role in making excuses and play the innocent victim so that our partner will back off.

Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take their concerns seriously and that we won’t take responsibility for our mistakes. It sends the message that ‘I don’t care about your pain’.

  • Question: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”

  • Defensive response: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact, you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”

This partner not only responds defensively, but they reverse blame in an attempt to make it the other partner’s fault.

Although it is perfectly understandable to defend yourself if you’re stressed out and feeling attacked, this approach will not have the desired effect. Defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if the critical spouse does not back down or apologize. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner, and it won’t allow for healthy conflict management.

Antidote: accept responsibility (even for part). Instead, a non-defensive response can express acceptance of responsibility, admission of fault, and understanding of your partner’s perspective. Continue to use ‘I’ Statements:

“Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. That’s my fault. Let me call them right now.”

  1. Stonewalling is usually a response to contempt. Stonewalling includes withdraws, shuts down, and non-responses to their partner.

Rather than discussing the issues with their partner, people who stonewall tune out, turn away, act busy, or distract. It is the true definition of putting up a wall to your partner. It is a quick and automatic response to pain and can cause just as much physiological as physical disconnect.

Antidote: Take 20 minutes to do something alone that soothes you—read a book or magazine, take a walk, go for a run, really, just do anything that helps to stop feeling flooded—and then return to the conversation once you feel ready. If you feel like you’re stonewalling during a conflict, stop the discussion and ask your partner to take a break:

“Alright, I’m feeling too angry to keep talking about this. Can we please take a break and come back to it in a bit? It’ll be easier to work through this after I’ve calmed down.”


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