No matter how successful and satisfactory a relationship is, conflict is inevitable. It is not the presence of conflict itself, but how the couple goes about navigating the conflict and their patterns of communication that can ultimately make or break the relationship.
Research has identified four communication patterns that can predict relationship failure with over 90% accuracy – which Dr. John Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
What are the Four Horsemen?
Gottman named these communication patterns as a play on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament. Within the New Testament conquest, war, hunger, and death are described as signifying the end. Similarly, the persistent use of Gottman’s Four Horsemen is likely to signify instability and unhappiness in a relationship, thus increasing the likelihood that happiness in and commitment to the relationship will end.
Even if this appear small and insignificant, some problems can’t be ignored because they simply don’t disappear with time.(Silverstein, 2022)
The first horseman is more than merely voicing a complaint to your partner or critiquing a specific behaviour. Rather, it is an attack on your partner at the core of their character. It is important to recognize the difference:
Complaint: “I was worried when you didn’t let me know you were coming home late. I thought this was something we agreed to work on together.”
Criticism: “You’re not even forgetful, you are just selfish! You don’t care about anyone other than yourself! Especially me!”
Not every critical comment suggests that the relationship will come to an end. The issue with criticism is that, when it becomes extensive, it leaves room for the other horsemen to appear and thrive. When criticism becomes frequent in a back-and-forth pattern, it can eventually lead to the deadliest horseman – contempt.
The second horseman is contempt, which is said to be the single greatest predictor of divorce. In other words, it should be eliminated. Contempt occurs when one partner assumes moral superiority over the other – often including disrespect, sarcasm, mockery, eye-rolling, and scoffing. Essentially, the outcome of contempt may invite the recipient feel despised and worthless.
Contempt: “You’re tired? That’s an actual joke. Cry me a river. I go to work just to come home and clean up after you all night. All you do is watch TV and complain about your oh-so-hard life. You’re a sorry excuse for a partner. It’s honestly pathetic.”
Interestingly enough, research shows that contempt in couples can increase the likelihood of infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.) because of weakened immune systems! Contempt is a result of long-lasting negative feelings about the partner – which comes up by means of disrespectful attacks in a condescending nature.
This is the deadliest horseman as it is the greatest predictor of relationship failure.
The third horseman is defensiveness, which usually results from criticism. Defensiveness is present across many relationships as a form of self-protection when in conflict. This horseman involves playing the victim and looking for excuses to remove the blame from oneself, placing it on the other partner instead.
It is important to note that defensiveness rarely solves anything. Instead, it disregards the other partner’s concerns by not taking responsibility for our faults and contributions to disconnection.
Example Question: “Did you order the flowers for your mother’s birthday tomorrow like you promised?”
Defensiveness: “How on earth did you expect me to order flowers? I’ve been swamped at work, and you know how busy my schedule is. Why didn’t you just order them yourself?”
This is an example of how a partner not only defends themselves, but also tries to re-direct the blame on the other partner.
Although it is normal to defend ourselves when feeling attacked and stressed out, it will only worsen the conflict if there is no acceptance of responsibility. This horseman involves blaming each other instead of coming to an understanding, which often impedes on healthy conflict management.
The fourth and final horseman is stonewalling, which is typically a response to contempt. Stonewalling is when the listener shuts down and withdrawals themselves from the interaction with their partner. Instead of communicating and confronting the issue, partners that stonewall tend to turn away and distract themselves from the conflict.
When the other three horsemen become frequent and overwhelming enough, it can lead an undesirable “shutting down” response. This is typically a last resort and the outcome of feeling psychologically flooded – not being in a proper physiological state to discuss things rationally.
Stonewalling creates more problems as it prolongs tension and unresolved conflict within a relationship. Unfortunately, once it starts, it is difficult to stop.
What Can I do About the Four Horsemen?
The first step to eliminating the Four Horsemen is to develop an awareness of them. Once you are able to identify these destructive communication patterns, you must then replace them with healthy, productive ones.
Luckily, there are proven antidotes to each of the horsemen! The next blog post will discuss positive behaviours that can help counteract negativity – thus increasing the likelihood of relationship success!
Vanessa Russo, MACP Candidate, Psychotherapy Intern