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Four Horsemen

Photo by Ron Mehne

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”

In the past several weeks many of my clients have come into session wanting to discuss the broken relationships in Big Little Lies.  Of course the main topic of conversation is the complexity of the abusive relationship between Celeste and Perry.  Why is Celeste sometimes complicit, they ask?  Clients are fascinated that both she and Perry are turned on by rage and the sexual energy that it unleashes.  While I am not an expert on domestic violence the therapists that I have spoken to who are, agree that often in an abusive relationship the lines between consent and coercion are blurred and what goes on between the couple in this series is a disturbingly accurate portrayal of an abusive relationship.

Instead what I see in far too many of my couples is a different kind of abuse.  It is what renowned family therapist John Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.   While this is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament, describing conquest, war, hunger and death respectively Dr. Gottman uses this metaphor to describe damaging communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship.

The first horseman of the apocalypse is criticism.   Criticizing your partner is different than expressing a concern or articulating a complaint.   The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is directed against a person rather than the position they are taking.  It is an attack on your partner in absolute terms.  Telltale signs of using this form of communication include the words’ always and never.

The problem with persistent criticism is that, it paves the way for the other horsemen. Criticism makes one feel attacked, rejected, and offended, and often causes the couple to fall into an escalating pattern where disapproval reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity.

The second horseman is contempt.  When we are contemptuous with each other we are mean – We treat each other with disrespect, we mock, we are sarcastic, and we name call and ridicule, we roll our eyes or mimic.  Contempt is a harsher form of criticism and it makes us feel damaged and marginalized and our self-confidence is eroded because we are getting the message that we are defective.

Contempt is generated by negative thoughts about your partner – contempt often comes from a position of superiority or from assigning negative meaning when none is intended. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce according to Dr. Gottman – “its poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust.  Its virtually impossible to resolve a problem when you partner is getter the message that you are disgusted with him or her”.

The third horseman is defensiveness. This horseman is ubiquitous to all relationships especially those that are stuck. When we feel accused unjustly, we look for excuses to avoid taking responsibility.   We try to protect ourselves from an attack with a counter complaint or criticism.  Unfortunately defensiveness keeps us from taking responsibility for our part in an argument and escalates our negative communication putting our partner on the defensive too.  “Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner.  You are saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me it’s you”.  Not only is this a defensive response but also the table in turned and it becomes about the others’ fault.  

The fourth horseman is stonewalling.  Stonewalling occurs when one partner withdraws. When he or she shuts down and closes off from the other.  It is a lack of responsiveness to your partner and the interaction between the two of you.  Rather than confronting the issues with our partner, we evade, we tune out, turn away, and disappear into other activities or people.  It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that distancing becomes a de facto part of a couple’s interaction.  The silent treatment or the cold shoulder describes stonewalling.

When I explain to couples the 4 horsemen and show them how they are present in much of their communication the surprise and acknowledgement is palpable.  Being aware of The Four Horsemen in conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough.  In therapy a first step is helping the couple replace the four horsemen with the appropriate antidotes.  It is only then that we can begin to explore the negative emotional cycle that the couple is in.

People will always have different ways of looking at the world and typically we are very wedded to our points of view.   So much informs who we are as individuals – our backgrounds, our families, our ideology, lifestyle personality, etc.  Our differences are just that – differences, it is not about being right or wrong.   What we have to get better at is being able to engage in respectful, mutually honest and vulnerable conversations in spite of those differences.  Relationship distress occurs when conflict becomes toxic and if we do not address the corrosiveness of our negative dialogue it leads to emotional disengagement.
We all know how untrue this childhood ditty is.  Sticks and Stones may break our bones BUT Words DO hurt.   Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling cause emotional injury, and when they take place in a couple they will erode good faith and generosity of spirit until they destroy the relationship.

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