Introducing the Four Horsemen

No, this isn’t a religious sermon, but it is an important message for anyone in a committed relationship.

In previous blogs, we have delved into several factors that make marriages fail, succeed, and flourish. Building off that work, it is important to examine some of the other major challenges that face married couples. While this focuses on marriages, as always, these principles can apply to all sorts of interpersonal relationships.

Dr. John Gottman, who has spent years studying relationships, warns of the “Four Horsemen,” that can consistently spell doom for marriage. While we discussed one, contempt, in a previous article, he describes the remaining horsemen as criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Criticism, which we touched on only briefly, constitutes attacks on your partner’s character, often involving ad hominem attacks. Importantly, Dr. Gottman distinguishes between “criticism” and what he describes as simple critiques or complaints.

Essentially, a criticism involves telling your partner that there is something wrong with them, while critiques and complaints presents concerns over specific behaviors or, at their best, offer positive requests for certain behaviors. For example, contrast this criticism: “How can you leave dirty clothes everywhere? Why do you have to be so messy?” with the complaint “Could you try to pick up your dirty clothes?”

The former example involved actually attacking one’s partner, while the latter was framed in the context of an active request. The critical difference, then, between criticism and complaints rests in fostering an acceptance of each other’s needs and in preventing an atmosphere of distrust or conflict. It is in those toxic, criticism-filled, atmospheres that the other Horsemen, such as defensiveness and stonewalling thrive.

Defensiveness is probably all too familiar to each of us. This horseman arises when we face perceived criticism and consider these attacks to be unfair or unjust. Then the defensive partner will attempt to retaliate by lashing out in response, turning the situation around on their significant other.

Building on the example discussed earlier, this could result in the retort that “You are just as messy! Why don’t you clean up more, if it bothers you so much?” Often, this is intended to mitigate the criticism and resolve the situation, but instead it usually fails to end the conflict, perpetuating tension and continuing to undermine trust in the relationship.

Similarly, the final horseman, stonewalling, is similar in some ways to defensiveness, except that it involves a complete withdrawal from the interaction. The stonewalling partner will respond to a criticism, or even valid complaint, by simply shutting down and refusing to respond or address the issue. This can involve leaving the room or completely ignoring your partner.

So, we’ve outlined these apocalyptic relationship habits, but what is there to do about them? The first step, of course, is properly recognizing their signs, but Dr. Gottman offers further advice on managing them properly. He emphasizes the notion of “management” over “resolution,” because these conflicts will inevitably occur, but it is important to better handle them when they do arise.

We’ve already discussed how criticism can be converted into valid complaints, but what about the other two? Rather than becoming defensiveness, we have to work to take responsibility for a given problem. Instead of shifting blame in the dirty clothes example, the partner ought to respond positively and help clean up the house. This needn’t involve taking complete blame, but requires at least acknowledging a sense of shared responsibility.

Finally, sometimes distance from a stressful situation may be necessary, which is the impulse that drives stonewalling. Instead of withdrawal, however, it may be important to agree on taking some time apart to engage in a soothing activity. Just fifteen minutes of time alone can allow couples to revisit issues with compassion instead of anger and frustration.

While these horseman are likely to be constant challenges for any couple, proper management can go a long way towards preserving healthy and happy relationships.

For more information on Dr. Gottman’s relationship advice, see our past blogs here and here.

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