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The 4 Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse

During his observational studies with couples Dr John Gottman discovered that anger during conflict was not predictive of relationship breakdown.  What was predictive was the use of what he called the 4 horsemen of the relationship apocalypse.  This video provides a description of each.

What are the 4 Horsemen and their antidotes?

Dr John Gottman’s research spanning over 40 years and interviewing over 3000 couples found the strongest indicators of relationship breakdown are the use of what he called the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse. These are:

  • Criticism

  • Defensiveness

  • Contempt

  • Stonewalling.


Dr John Gottman found through his research that there were two types of couples: The Disasters and The Masters of Relationship. The Masters rarely used the 4 horsemen in their communication. Instead, they were able to speak more gently to their partners, take responsibility for their part in the conflict, talk about how they felt and self soothe if they became overwhelmed. Gottman Identified these as the Antidotes to the Four Horsemen. He called the Antidotes:

  • Using a Gentle Start Up

  • Taking Responsibility

  • Describing Your Own Feelings and Needs

  • Doing Physiological Self Soothing.

 

Gottman observed that when couples used the 4 horsemen during a conflict conversation the conflict became more escalated and hurtful.  When couples used the Antidotes instead, their conflict discussion stayed calmer and the couple reported feeling more connected at the end of the discussion.

So how do you change yiyr communication pattern from using the 4 horsemen to using the antidotes?  First you have to understand what each of the horsemen sound like.

Criticism

Criticism is typified by the use of ‘You’ statements.  'You' statements frequently sound harsh. The often sound like "You always .... " or "You never ...." or "You are ...."  or "You aren't ..."

When  ‘You’ statements are used the often feel like an attack on your personality, e.g. "You are so lazy!"  "You aren't a nice person!"  "You never think about anyone but yourself, you are selfish."  "You always run late, you are so inconsiderate."

The Antidote for Criticism is to “Use a gentle start up.’  The easiest way to do this is to use an 'I' statement.  Gottman suggests the format of  "I Feel (insert an emotion word) about (insert a description of the situation - not a description of your partner), and what I need is (insert a request for action)."  Some examples are:

  • I feel unsupported with keeping the house clean and tidy, what I need is for us to talk about how this can be done more reliably.

  • I feel hurt when I am spoken to like that, what I need is to be treated more respectfully.

  • I feel uncared for when my needs aren't considered, what I need is more communication about what both of us need.

  • I feel disrespected when I am left waiting, what I need is more attention and consideration for the agreements we make.

 

Defensiveness

Defensiveness generally occurs when we feel attacked. Defensiveness is mostly projected in two ways.

  1.  Counterattack -  meet a perceived criticism with a counter criticism, e.g. my partner says, "You didn't bring the washing it before it rained!"  I counterattack with "Well you should have done the washing yesterday!"

  2.  Taking a victim stance in a whingy or whiny tone, e.g. My partner says "The rubbish bin hasn't been taken out again!"  I say in a whiny tone, "That's not fair I only got home 20 minutes ago."

 

The Antidote to Defensivenes is to take some responsibility for you part within the conflict, even if you think you play onlyba minor role, e.g.  My partner says, "You didn't bring the washing it before it rained!" I respond with "Oh you are right, I let the side down this time, I'm sorry."  Or my partner says "The rubbish bin hasn't been taken out again!"  I respond with "You are right, I haven't quite gotten to it yet, but I will," said with a cheeky smile.

Contempt

Contempt is the strongest indicator of relationship breakdown, in fact, Gottman was able to predict with 92% accuracy which couples would break up and which would stay together just by measuring how much contempt was used in a 10 minute conflict conversation.  He repeated that study 7 times! 

Contempt is like criticism on steriods. Contempt is generally characterised by actions like eye-rolling, acting  superior to your partner, using mean, nasty or sarcastic comments, acts of belligerence such as slamming doors, yelling, swearing, etc, e.g. "Oh that's right, you know everything of course" accompanied with an eye-roll.

The antidote to Contempt is to describe your feelings and needs, very much like a gentle start up but with moe detail.  It might sound something like "What's happening to me right now as I listen to you I am feeling frustrated and a bit hopeless.  It sounds like you are making a very firm statement there and I am not convinced that is the only way to go about this.  I would really like us to keep an open mind and talk through a range of possibilities with you.  Can we please try that?"

Stonewalling

Stonewalling generally occurs when you become physiologically aroused and shut down. Gottman discovered that once your heart rate reaches 100 beats per minute your cortisol levels and your stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, flood the nervous system and compromise the prefrontal cortex of your brain.

At this point you are not able to rationally or logically think straight. Your ability to problem solve, think flexibly, process your emotions or empathise with another are completely compromised.  Anything that is said at this point will only be more detrimental to the conversation and relationship.

The antidote to Stonewalling is Physiological Self soothing. This is any attempt to calm yourself and may include slowing the conversation down while you both do some deep breathing, agreeing to take a break for 20 to 40 minutes during which you might go for a walk, meditate, just take some time out to think about what you are really trying to express.

Once you have calmed down it is important to reconnect with your partner, you do not have to continue the conversation, you just have to reconnect.  You might say something like, "Sorry i got a bit hot under the collar then, can we try having that conversation again after dinner?"  The key is to reconnect and not to avoid the conversation but indicate your willingness to keep working on it.

Learning to avoid the 4 horsemen is a key skill for you both to learn in the functional management of conflict. 

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Trish Purnell-Webb Clinical Psychologist, Couples Therapist, Coach and Trainer

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