Approximately six months ago, I was visited by a young couple who were having communication problems in their relationship. On our first meeting, they shared, “it’s weird, because we don’t have one specific topic we argue about. It’s just that things get heated really quickly over little things.” They were right: it wasn’t what they were arguing about that was the problem, but how they were arguing.
John Gottman and colleagues have studied romantic relationships for over 40 years by observing how couples interact. They have found that certain styles of arguing reliably led to divorce. In fact, they could predict with over 90% accuracy which couples were more likely to divorce based on watching them disagree for only 90 seconds.
They called this problematic communication style using the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse . In disagreements, these following four responses can derail communication:
1. Criticism – making a globally negative statement about your partner
(e.g., “you always forget to pack the kids’ lunches!”)
2. Defensiveness – engaging in a counter-attack or proclaiming your innocence
(e.g., “that’s not true, you forget things too!” or “why is everything always my fault?”)
3. Contempt – any statement made from a superior place
(e.g., “you are such a loser”)
4. Stonewalling – shutting down communication
(e.g., folding arms over chest, replying with one word answers)
With this couple, we worked on first identifying the Four Horsemen in their arguments. Once they could understand what was happening in their conflicts, we worked on finding ways to pacify this negative interaction by learning the antidotes to the Four Horsemen:
1. Antidote to criticism – making a specific complaint
(e.g., “I’m upset that you didn’t take out the garbage last night”)
2. Antidote to defensiveness – taking responsibility
(e.g., “you’re right – I do cut you off sometimes”)
3. Antidote to contempt – describe your own feelings and needs
(e.g., “I’m feeling frustrated and I need a few minutes to think about this.”)
4. Antidote to stonewalling – do physiological self-soothing
(e.g., take 30 minutes to watch television)
Every couple—healthy or not—will use one of the Four Horsemen occasionally. What predicts divorce or break-up in couples is when they are used routinely.
I work with couples to break these negative interactions so they can find ways to enjoy their relationship again by learning to communicate clearly and express affection. It can take some time to change these patterns, but the knowledge of the Four Horsemen has been valuable learning for the couples I work with.