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The Four Horsemen of Relationship Apocalypse

The first three minutes of a conflict have a direct relationship with the outcome of that conflict in particular, and the future success of that relationship in general (Schwartz- Gottman & Gottman, 2015). It can be very challenging to get our point across while also not becoming overly activated to the point where we shut down or start throwing metaphorically punches at the other person. This can be even more of a daunting task during an emotionally charged situation. Below are what Schwartz Gottman & Gottman refer to as the “Four Horseman of Relationship Apocalypse,” which can lead to resentment, fractured communication and feeling disconnected from your partner. The first two can be viewed as figurative “weapons” to put down our partner while the last two can be seen as symbolic “shields” to protect ourselves during an argument. 

1. Criticism

Criticism occurs when we blame a relationship problem on a trait of a particular partner. This only leads to resentment and can get in the way of clearly explaining what we want from our partner. 

2. Contempt

Contempt can manifest as blame, putdowns or name-calling. Aside from belittling being far outside the realm of a healthy relationship, contempt conveys mocking or superiority and actually impacts the immune system of the listener (Schwartz Gottman & Gottman, 2015). It is the most corrosive of the Four Horsemen and can be verbal or non-verbal in the form of an eye-roll or smirk. 

3. Defensiveness

Defensiveness can be defined as an attempt at self-protection through innocent victimhood or righteous indignation to ward off a perceived “attack”. Defensiveness is different from criticism in that defensiveness is a “counter-attack” to a complaint. This is the most difficult of the four horseman to overcome because it prevents the listener from hearing the speaker’s attempt for a bid for affection by hyper focusing on their partner’s disapproval. In this way, we wind up getting in our way when we are defensive because we only hear disrespect rather than our partner’s desire for connection. The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility. Much to our chagrin, taking responsibility for part of the problem is a requirement to addressing an issue and enhancing our connection to our partner. 

4. Stone-walling

Stone-walling is the metaphorical shield we use when we shut down by not reacting at all. When this happens we check out of the conversation and are no longer able to hear what our partner is telling us. During an argument, our physiological “Fight, Flight or Freeze” response system is active and unless we learn to manage our own and respect the stress level of the other person, we can create a recipe for disaster. This is why taking breaks can be very effective when a conflict gets too heated. When we recognize that we are listening to respond rather than listening to understand or have an increased heart rate, we should assess if it’s time to time a few moments to decompress with the understanding that both parties will return to the conversation at a mutually agreed upon time. 

If any of these elements sounds like communication patterns in your relationship, working with a therapist to replace the Four Horsemen with Conflict Management Skills can greatly improve communication and connection with your partner. Together we can unveil each individual’s bids for attention in each argument so each party can hear and address the other’s desire to enhance their connection and support for one another. 

Be well, 

Marissa Ahern, LMSW