The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Relationships
Written by: Jose M. Luna, MSW
When couples seek therapy, it can be extremely daunting for both parties involved. Oftentimes this may be the last straw before the couple decide to go their separate ways. Some couples seek therapy for support following an affair, or to learn how to alleviate conflict within their relationship and how to better effectively communicate with one another.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, believed that our marital relationships are determined far before we meet our romantic partners. He believed that our romantic relationships are influenced by our parents and important individuals from our childhood. Although many of Freud’s theories have been controversial, understanding our childhood experiences can often explain our own choices in romantic partners.
Dr. John and Julie Gottman are the founders of the Gottman Institute in Seattle, Washington, where they have conducted extensive research on couples interactions, spanning over 30 years. They are often sought by media and organizations as experts on marriage, relationships and sexual issues. John and Julie Gottman have described in their research being able to describe the four horsemen in a couples conflict discussion, as the first step in replacing them with more healthier communicative patterns.
The four horsemen of the apocalypse is a metaphor and also christian figures used to describe the end of the world. They include (conquest, war, famine and death). Dr. John and Julie Gottman, use this metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship- based on their extensive research findings.
The first horseman is Criticism; when our criticism towards our partners becomes pervasive, it can lead to far more worst horsemen. When we criticize, we attack our partner’s character and can make them feel rejected, hurt and in many ways assaulted. Instead of criticizing, offer a critique, using I statements, or voice a concern.
The second horseman is Contempt; when we are contemptuous towards our partner, we are not only critical, but we are far more disrespectful, often mocking them and out to make our partners feel worthless. According to Dr. John and Julie Gottman, contempt is one of the predictors of divorce. It also stems from negative perceptions and thoughts about our partner. Instead, try listening to your partner and understanding where they may be coming from.
The third horseman is Defensiveness; when we are defensive, it usually is a response to criticism from our partners. The problem with defensiveness is that it tells our partner that we don’t take them seriously and don’t own up for our own mistakes. Many couples will find themselves going in circles as each partner becomes more defensive as time goes on. Defensiveness is an alternative way of blaming your partner and is not healthy for conflict management. Instead, listen to your partner and understand their perspective.
The fourth horseman is Stonewalling; when we stonewall, it usually is a response to contempt. This is where the partner shuts down, detaches from the conflict and just simply stops responding. Our partners at this point become overwhelmed by the first three horsemen. If you feel your or your partner has stonewalled, it’s important to take a 20 minute break and then return to the conversation at a later time.
Understanding the importance of the four horsemen in a couples conflict discussions will help in the first step in eliminating them and replacing them with healthier patterns. I will discuss those “antidotes” to the four horsemen in my next blog, based on the research by Dr. John and Julie Gottman.
Written By: Jose M. Luna, MSW, Registered Associate Clinical Social Worker 87743 under the supervision of Nancy Ruiz-Barnes, MSW, Licensed Clinical Social Worker 79552