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The 4 Horsemen of a Relationship – Communication Styles to Avoid

Relationships are hard work, and good communication is key. Identify unhelpful communication styles that you’re using in your relationship and take action to keep them in check.

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Do you and your partner frequently argue with each other? Do most of your conversations turn into fights? Do you find yourself stuck in a cycle of unhelpful or unhealthy communication?

A lot of couples believe that if they avoided conflicts, they would be much happier together. However, the fact of the matter is that all relationships have conflicts. It is not conflict in itself that creates problems in a relationship; instead, it is the way that a couple responds to conflicts that can make or break their relationship. When conflicts are dealt with in a healthy manner, couples can actually end up feeling closer to each other. 

So what this means is that the key to a successful relationship is not to avoid conflict, but to learn how to manage conflicts in a more helpful manner. This cannot be done without healthy and effective communication. As simple and cliched as it sounds, communication is crucial to keep a relationship strong. It can not only help you resolve conflicts with your partner, but can also help you and your partner create a happy life together. 

But we all know that good communication is hard to establish. More often than not, especially in a conflict situation, we might find ourselves communicating in a way that can make the situation worse. In fact, clinical psychologist Dr. John Gottman – who spent several years studying hundreds of couples as they worked through conflicts – arrived at a similar conclusion. He discovered 4 distinct communication styles that can negatively impact the health of a relationship. Because of their potential to damage a relationship, he labelled these styles as the 4 horsemen of a relationship.

Dr. Gottman also proposed that if couples can identify these styles and work to avoid them, they can build a stronger and more intimate relationship together. The good news is that effective communication is a skill that can be learned. If you know where you or your partner are  going wrong, you can then take action to communicate better. 

Let’s take a look at the 4 horsemen of relationships and learn what can be done to keep them in check.

#1 – Criticism

“You are so selfish! You always think about yourself.”

The first horseman is criticism. Criticism takes place when a person makes a negative remark or passes a judgement about another individual. When you criticise your partner, you are basically expressing that something is wrong with them. If you often use absolute terms like “never” or “always” while giving feedback to your partner or expressing your concerns/complaints, then it’s likely that you are being critical of them.

While one-off instances of criticism can be easy to bounce back from, excessive or frequent criticism can cause permanent damage to your partner’s self-esteem as well as the stability of your relationship.

What you can do about it: 

According to Dr. Gottman, the antidote of criticism is what he calls a gentle start-up. This involves expressing your concerns in an assertive and respectful manner, without engaging in blaming.  Instead of starting off with the word “you”, start with an “I feel” response – as this can turn the focus to your feelings in a conflict situation. This can also help your partner better understand your perspective.

The antidote in action: 

“I feel hurt when you talk to me this way. It makes me feel that you don’t consider my feelings. Can we please think of a way to overcome this?” 

#2 – Defensiveness

“It’s not my fault that we’re going to miss half the movie. It’s your fault since you’re never ready on time.”

Defensiveness commonly occurs in response to criticism. When someone criticises you, it’s natural to become defensive. The problem with defensiveness is that it can stop a person from acknowledging their role or responsibility in a conflict situation. When you become defensive, you end up implying that the problem isn’t with you, it’s with your partner. It can even lead you to transfer the blame back to your partner, which can then lead to negative emotions and reactions that can intensify the conflict situation.

What you can do about it: 

Accepting responsibility is the antidote to defensiveness. When you take accountability for your actions, it can help you and your partner work more collaboratively to resolve a problem. In times of conflict, take a moment to reflect on how you might have contributed to the situation at hand. Are you doing something that is hurting your partner? Have you been dismissive of their opinion or feelings? 

The antidote in action:

“I am not comfortable with being late, but I understand that you had to take care of some work. I think I can also be rigid at times – and I need to learn how to be more flexible.”

#3 – Contempt

“You forgot to do the laundry again? Wow, I don’t even know why I expect better from you. You’re so lazy.” 

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a similar statement? Have you ever felt a look of contempt from someone? If you have, then you know how awful it feels. Dr. Gottman suggests that out of the 4 horsemen, contempt is the most harmful one. It can permanently damage your relationship and can even lead to a breakup or divorce.

Contempt takes place when one person says or does something to imply that they are on a higher ground compared to their partner. Deliberately putting your partner down or making them feel inferior to you can have profound psychological effects on your partner and can be extremely damaging to your relationship. Contempt can often result in feelings of disgust, acts of disrespect as well as verbal ridicule. It can take the form of name-calling, mocking, sarcasm and even eye-rolling. 

When contempt is present in your relationship, it can prevent you from establishing a healthy emotional or physical connection with your partner.

What you can do about it: 

The damage done with contempt is intense, but it can be countered by cultivating appreciation and respect towards your partner. There are multiple ways in which this can be done. For instance, you could make a habit of regularly telling your partner why you feel grateful for them. Additionally, you can create more positive feelings in the relationship by listening to them attentively, making a conscious effort to respect their opinions and doing special things for them. Focussing on your partner’s positive qualities and all the good that’s coming out of your relationship will make it less likely that you feel contemptuous towards them. When you are able to express your complaints or dissatisfaction without contempt, you can also make it easier for your partner to accept and work on any feedback that you have for them.

The antidote in action: 

“Over the last few days, I’ve noticed that a lot of our clothes are piling up. I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, but do you think you could try doing the laundry? I will really appreciate it.”

#4 – Stonewalling

***silence***

The fourth and final horseman is none other than stonewalling. Stonewalling is when all communication comes to a halt. It takes place when you put up a metaphorical wall between your partner and yourself by withdrawing from them, shutting down, or physically and emotionally disconnecting from them. For instance, if you and your partner get into an argument, you might give them the ‘silent treatment’ or suddenly leave the house without informing them about your whereabouts. 

When a person uses the stonewalling style in a conflict situation, it doesn’t mean that they don’t care or that they are indifferent. Instead, in most cases, the person who is stonewalling has trouble managing their distress and thus ends up shutting down. While this perspective is clear to the person doing the stonewalling, the other individual can end up feeling rejected or stranded. 

Gottman suggests that stonewalling typically happens when the first 3 horsemen have been used in the conflict without any resolution or respite. The conflict may begin with expressing criticism and contempt, which can then turn into the act of being defensive. Ultimately, when all goes downhill, one or both partners may end up resorting to stonewalling. 

What you can do about it: 

You can avoid stonewalling your partner by engaging in self-soothing techniques. When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, communicate to your partner that you need to take a time out. Getting some space and distance from the distressing situation can enable you to take control of your emotions and can put things into perspective. This prevents the situation from getting out of hand, as you now get the chance to cool down. A 20-minute timeout can be sufficient in helping you feel at ease. During your time out, avoid focussing on negative thoughts like “I can’t take this anymore” or “Why is my partner always like this?” Instead, go for a walk, get some fresh air, doodle for a bit, watch a show, or talk to a friend.

The antidote in action: 

“I’m sorry to cut you off, but this situation is overwhelming me. Can I take a 20-minute break and then we can continue the conversation?”

If you find that you or your partner are using any of these 4 communication styles, it’s time to bring about some change in your relationship. Remember that change is always possible – no matter how scary, painful or tedious it might seem. With the right strategies to keep the communication going, you can build better habits and create a better, more loving and a lasting relationship with your partner.

References

Avoiding The “Four Horsemen” in Relationships (Greater Good in Action). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/avoiding_the_four_horsemen_in_relationships

Barbara, Yael, October, K., November, L., February, B. C., & James Warner. (2017, September 15). How to Communicate in a Relationship: Communication Between Couples. Retrieved from https://www.psychalive.org/communication-between-couples/

Department of Health & Human Services. (2014, August 31). Relationships and communication. Retrieved from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/relationships-and-communication

Marshall, P. (2019, May 7). Stonewalling ~ One of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Relationships. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@patticmarshall/stonewalling-one-of-the-four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse-in-relationships-7144dcc023a6

The Four Horsemen: Signs Your Relationship is In Trouble. (2020, March 5). Retrieved from https://sacwellness.com/the-four-horsemen-signs-your-relationship-is-in-trouble/

Lisitsa, E. (2020, April 29). The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/

Tomlinson, I., & Maria. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved from https://manchesterpsychotherapy.co.uk/relationship-break-up-horsemen-divorce/

Werrbach, M. (2018, July 8). Predicting Divorce: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalpyse. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/predicting-divorce-the-four-horsemen-of-the-apocalpyse

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