The Four Horsemen: how to spot the top predictors of relationship dissolution
Dr. John Gottman, psychologist, researcher and co-founder of The Gottman Institute, has been studying couples for decades. He and his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, have turned this research into a world-renowned couples counselling framework. One of the most impactful findings to come out of the research was the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. The extent to which these Horsemen are present in a relationship can predict with 95% accuracy whether newlywed couples will be together in five years. Here is what the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse look like so you know how to spot them!
Criticism is when you attribute a mistake or behaviour to your partner’s character and turn it into a personal attack. Criticism might sound like, “Why can you never take the garbage out on time? You are so lazy!” Criticism most often elicits escalation from the partner in the forms of Contempt or Defensiveness.
Contempt is similar to criticism but takes things to the next level by assuming a stance of moral superiority over the partner, along with disrespect and disgust. Contempt might look like eye rolling when the partner starts to talk, using body language to mock the partner, or using name calling. The receiver is left feeling humiliated, despised, and generally worthless. Contempt is the most toxic of the Four Horsemen and the strongest predictor of relationship dissolution.
Defensiveness often comes out in response to criticism or any other time partners feel accused. It might sound like, “No, I didn’t take the garbage out because I was too busy taking care of everything else you asked me to do! You should have noticed how busy I was and done it yourself for once!” In effect, Defensiveness denies responsibility and puts the blame for the issue onto the partner.
Stonewalling is often a response to contempt and happens when we are feeling emotionally flooded; Our heart rate rises, and we are too overwhelmed to continue engaging, so we shut down. Stonewalling can look like a blank expression, leaving the room abruptly or turning our attention to the tv or our phone, or saying something like “I’m not talking about this with you anymore. This conversation is over.”
If these Horsemen sound familiar to you, there is still hope. Each Horsemen has an antidote that, with practice, can save your relationship.
Instead of Criticizing, try using the complain formula statement. “I feel emotion, about _ specific situation, event or behaviour, and I need positive need.” A positive need is stating what you do want, not something you don’t want to happen.
If you notice Contempt in your relationship, the antidote is to build more appreciation. Remind yourselves why you fell in love in the first place,on and find small things to be appreciative of in each other each day.
Instead of becoming Defensive, try accepting your partner’s perspective, take responsibility for your role in the conflict and reflect how your actions impacted your partner. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them about their perception of the event. You are simply acknowledging their experience of how your behaviour impacted them.
Last, when you notice yourself getting overwhelmed and physiologically flooded, instead of shutting down, ask for a break. The break needs to be at least 20 minutes for your body to return to baseline, and you must return to the conversation. This break is not a time-out to prepare your side of the argument, it is a break for your nervous system. So, separate yourself, go to your happy place and do some deep breathing.