Dr John Gottman has been devoting his research to observing couples since the 1970s. His research not only uncovered patterns of differing behaviour between happy and unhappy couples, but also discovered that most relationship problems (69%) never get resolved, due to differences in personality.
As part of his ongoing research, Gottman discovered how couples create and maintain intimacy and friendship. He could also predict with high accuracy, the likelihood of a couple divorcing or separating, by identifying the four most destructive behaviours within a relationship. These behaviour indicators are referred to as the Four Horsemen.
These Four Horsemen are the negative communication patterns that prevent you from having healthy and productive communication with others.
Most relationships may demonstrate some of these behaviours, but healthy relationships don’t use them very often - and when they do, they make more of an effort to repair them when they’re used. You need to be aware of them, so you can work to eliminate them from your relationship - so here’s a brief overview of the four.
When you criticise someone, you tend to make them feel attacked. They will then come back at you on the defensive. Criticism is often used to influence and define someone negatively. Phrases that start with ‘you always’, or ‘you never’ set a dangerous precedent for internalising problems, so the other person ends up feeling inadequate, rejected, hurt and bad about themselves.
Left to fester, criticism can open the gate for the other horsemen to enter. If you want to counteract the criticism horseman, you need to start directly addressing the problem, not attempting to globalise it as an ongoing characteristic of the other person.
The most serious of all the horsemen is contempt. While criticism attacks their character, contempt assumes a moral superiority over them. It can involve mocking, name-calling, disrespect, ridicule, sneering and belittling. Contempt is often a result of long-simmering negative thoughts about the other person. Left unchecked it will swiftly lead to a destruction of any fondness, admiration and love in the relationship.
Contempt is one of the most significant predictors of divorce. To work towards eliminating it from your relationship, it helps to actively focus on gratitude, appreciation and the positive qualities you see in your partner.
Defensiveness is a typical response to criticism. It’s where you’re feeling accused so you act like the victim and come up with excuses, in the hopes the other person will back off. The problem just highlights how you dislike taking responsibility for your actions and causes more bad feelings and emotions in your relationship.
If you want to eliminate the defensive attitude, you need to start listening to your partner’s complaints and taking some responsibility for the problem.
Stonewalling is a typical defence against contempt. You totally withdraw from any discussion or argument, either by switching off and not listening or walking away altogether. Sometimes that stonewalling may be hidden behind behaviours such as looking busy or trying to distract attention onto something else. You’re basically shutting down and refusing to respond, rather than address the issues.
Often, stonewalling is a response to feeling overwhelmed, emotional or angry. But that’s not an excuse to keep doing it. It’s far better to explain that you need a brief time-out, so you can calm down and collect your thoughts, before coming back and picking up the conversation when you’re calmer.
Remember, most relationships may demonstrate some of these behaviours. However, those in healthy relationships will take the time to work on improving communication between each other, to minimise the recurrence of these behaviours. You’ll find some antidotes to counteract these behaviours, over on the Gottman Institute website.
And if you’d like more information on John Gottman and the Four Horsemen, I’d recommend you take a look at his book: https://uk.bookshop.org/books/the-seven-principles-for-making-marriage-work-a-practical-guide-from-the-international-bestselling-relationship-expert/9781841882956
If you would like some support with your relationship, I offer personal coaching to help you overcome blocks or see where you get stuck and how to overcome it.
Check out my Coaching Intensives or contact me for something more bespoke.