Four horsemen

How communicating using the Four Horsemen is harmful to your relationship

Communication is vital if you are trying to reconnect with your partner after years of being together but feeling you have drifted apart. Sometimes we slip into negative communication patterns harmful to our relationship; John Gottman identifies these as a relationship’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

In my podcast with co-host Gary Austin, Love in Midlife with the 2Gs, we are always talking about the big C – Communication and how important it is, but it can be tricky to communicate effectively with your partner when you don’t follow a few simple tips.

Let’s talk about the negative communication patterns, and then in my next post, we can talk about how to communicate effectively.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

In John Gottman’s work; the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, the four horsemen are very common negative communication behaviors. We learn our communication skills during childhood and are affected by emotions, experiences, and our relationship with our partner.

It can never end well when we set the precedent for a conversation using negative tones or words. However, suppose you have a good emotional bank account balance with your partner. In that case, occasional use will not harm your relationship beyond repair, but sustained use will cause damage.

1. Criticism

It’s challenging to communicate your hurt without sounding critical, but the key to this is to use ‘I’ statements, not ‘you’ statements. Being critical it is suggesting that your partner has a character defect.

For example, my client Jenn felt that her husband Todd was not understanding her need to be heard. A non-critical comment from Jenn to Todd would look like, “I am upset that you talked about your day at dinner and didn’t ask about mine.” Stopping there would communicate her need, but if she added, “you are so selfish,” it would turn into a criticism.

It is OK to complain to your partner about something bothering you, but not to turn it into criticism. Complain, don’t blame.

2. Contempt

Contempt in a relationship arises from the feeling that one partner is superior to the other. They know how to do things better; their way is the right way. It can manifest in name calling “you’re so stupid,” or sarcasm, “well, you’ve never helped me before, why would you start now?.  Catch yourself when your partner makes a suggestion, it’s tempting to respond contemptuously, perhaps even with an eye roll.

Showing your partner contempt is physically detrimental, too; there is a direct link to auto-immune disorders, as studies have shown that living in this negative environment erodes your immune system. 

3. Defensiveness

If you feel attacked by someone, your natural comeback will be defensive. Imagine if someone comes at you with sarcasm, it takes a lot of control not to shoot back a nasty comment, but this can be a vicious circle. To break this circle, take a breath and consider what is triggering your partner. It takes both of you to do this work.

4. Stonewalling

The first three horsemen, criticism, contempt, and defensiveness, can roll together interspersed throughout a conversation or argument. If no one breaks the cycle, there will be no resolution, only pain and unhappiness in the relationship; someone will inevitably tune out and stonewall the other person.

It’s just what it sounds like, putting up an impenetrable barrier, either by ignoring the other person, turning on the TV, sticking their nose in their phone, or walking away without explanation.

In my next post –How to Communicate with your Partner Effectively, I will address how we can communicate more positively and with respect and affection for our partners.