The Four Horsemen of Communication

The four horsemen of communication – a common theme among married couples is that anger and fighting are viewed as negative within the relationship. According to John Gottman, a leader in couple’s counseling and research, the release of anger can be positive within the relationship. Anger becomes problematic only when it is released in what Gottman refers to as the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.” The purpose of this Self Help Tip is to give you, the reader, a brief overview of what the horsemen can look like, and to give a few examples of how to correct them.

The first of the Four Horsemen is Criticism. Where some might critique or complain about a specific behavior of their partner, Criticism touches on their partner’s core as a human being. When one partner attacks the other partner’s personality or character, the arguing and anger become problematic for the couple. A complaint may look like “I became angry when you did not take out the garbage like you said you would.”  Comments like this voice the complacent partner’s feelings while also reminding the other partner of a promise they made. Where this comment could become a criticism is if it uses all or nothing language in order to generalize, “never,” “always,” “you…” Statements such as, “you always break your promises, you’re never going to become responsible” work to portray the blamed partner in a negative light.

Criticism, if not dealt with right away, can be used as a gateway horseman into the other three. Due to Criticism attacking a person’s character, they may feel hurt, rejected, and/or assaulted. When a person is left feeling this way, they may not be capable of catching the criticism in order to help their partner correct the statement. Instead, the criticized partner may portray the second horseman, Contempt.

The second of the four horsemen, Contempt looks to psychologically damage a partner. The intent of contempt is to be outwardly unkind and attack a person’s sense of Self. This horseman is not only done through words but also nonverbals such as eye rolling, body language, and tone of voice.  Contempt in the form of words can be categorized as insulting, name-calling, sarcastic, hostile humor or mockery. The contemptuous partner is aiming to make the other feel loathed and valueless. Gottman’s research has shown that this horseman can lead to infectious illnesses such as the common cold and influenza. Contempt is also the highest predictor of divorce or separation among couples. Where a partner might say, “you are so dumb, even our 3-year-old can think of something” a better way to have said this message is in a supportive, loving way, such as “it seems as though you’re struggling, would it be helpful if I took a look at it with you?” The latter comment is able to point out the turmoil their partner may be feeling, while also offering help. Instead of playing on the struggling partner’s feelings of inadequacy, the non-struggling partner gives permission to the struggling partner to voice their vulnerabilities and ask for help; thus, allowing the couple the opportunity to bond and grow together.

The third, of the four horsemen that Gottman points out is defensiveness. Where contempt and criticism are a form of attacking, defensiveness is usually the reaction that one takes after being assailed. The defensive partner sees himself or herself as the victim. Defensiveness can take its form in multiple ways; the first is when a partner makes excuses. The excuses usually entail an external factor that was out of the defensive partner’s control, “it’s not my fault, traffic was so bad on the 90 no one would have been able to get here on time!” Instead, the partner could own the fact that they were late by saying something as simple as, “you’re right, I was late.”

Another form of defensiveness is cross-complaining, where one partner complains then the other partner complains about something different; thereby ignoring the first partner’s complaint. This may look like one partner stating, “I don’t have any time to myself” and the other partner responding with “work today was awful, no one seemed to listen to me and nothing got done!” The second partner ignored the first partner’s concerns and gave up an opportunity to be supportive, loving, and caring. This also may trigger the first partner to become defensive and go into a criticism that may sound like this, “you never listen to me.” When looking at the couple’s interactions in this way, the horsemen become interactive and cyclical.

Partners may also take the form of disagreeing then cross-complaining or using negative mind reading. Often times, the defensive partner hadn’t even taken into consideration what the first partner had to say before already forming their defense. This may sound like, “that’s not true, I know you think it’s a waste of time!” As an alternative, a partner could respond by checking in with what the first partner said before they look to get their own needs met. This might look like, “what I’m hearing you say is… “

Defensiveness may also take the form of “yes, but…” The defensive partner will start out by placating their partner. Later that partner will disagree and give a different opinion, thus negating the “yes” they used in the beginning of their statement.  Defensive partners may also just continue to say what they were saying before without any regard to what the other partner has said. Defensive partners may simply whine about their circumstances as well by stating, “it’s not fair.” Instead, partners should work to first respond in a supportive check-in to their partner’s comment. Only then should they inform their partner of their feelings or thoughts in a vulnerable way. Stating “I feel left out when…” will be a lot better received than “it’s not fair.”

To better address all of these defenses, it is important to not see them as an assault. By looking at these messages as information that is important to the disclosing partner. Under each defense there is an underlying vulnerability that the partner may not feel comfortable to disclose or may not know exists. If the listening partner can be receptive to the underlying message and help to explore the meaning of the surface message, couples can grow together by working with one another rather than feel attacked and isolated.

Isolation is the key concept to the fourth horseman, stonewalling. A stonewaller is usually checked out and lacking the energy to be defensive. A healthy receiver of messages usually includes “uh huh” and “hmm” or nonverbals such as head nods to indicate that they are following what the other person is saying. Stonewalling is a silent reaction with no verbal or nonverbal responses, and at times includes physically removing themselves from being in proximity with their partner. By not having a response, the partner utilizing stonewalling conveys a level of superiority, disapproval, and cold distancing to their partner.  Gottman’s research indicates that stonewalling may illicit physical reactions in females when their male partners partake in stonewalling. Female’s hearts start to race and their breaths increase in number.  Stonewalling is usually a response to the other three horsemen being present and not being addressed. Stonewalling not only takes the partner out of the conversation, but also tends to take them out of the relationship as a whole. They do not get their needs met and are unable to support their partner.

Summarizing and utilizing the alternatives given throughout this piece in your daily routine with your partner can help to reduce and exclude the four horsemen from your relationship. It is important to look at the underlying message that the partner encompassing one of the horsemen is trying to convey. The receiving partner can then validate the underlying message for their partner. If complaints need to be made, it is important to make them specific, with concise requests afterwards. For example, when X happened, I feel Y, and I need Z. Claiming responsibility is also important in reducing the influence of the four horsemen. Lastly, each partner should shift to appreciation within his or her conversations. Both validating one another and accepting the gift that the other partner is giving by being vulnerable and sharing these important messages.