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The Four Horsemen

According to Gudrun Zomerland MFT, within the first three minutes of watching a couple have a conversation, Dr. John Gottman can predict with 96% accuracy whether the relationship he is watching will survive or not.  Zomerland says that Gottman bases his predictions on four potentially destructive communication styles and coping mechanisms, one of which Gottman calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

In the Bible, The Four Horsemen are a metaphor depicting the end the world.  They represent conquest, war, famine and death.  When introduced into a marriage, The Four Horsemen are disguised as criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling (avoiding conflict.)

Criticism is an expression of disapproval based on perceived faults or mistakes.  When we criticize our partner, we chip away at his or her self-confidence.  With criticism we tell our partner they are not good enough, smart enough, sexy enough, hard working enough.  For example, if your husband comes home late and you say, “Where were you?  I was worried.  You said you’d call if you ran late,” you’re complaining about a behavior.  Laying into him, accusing him of being forgetful or saying something like, “You never think about my feelings,” is criticism.

Contempt is the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving of scorn.  When we communicate with contempt we are being mean; we are disrespecting those around us by ridiculing, using sarcasm, or name-calling.  If you’re at a party and your spouse launches into a story you’ve heard a hundred times and you roll your eyes and interrupt him or her to say that no one wants to hear that stupid story again, that’s contempt.  In marriage it’s a quick poison.

Defensiveness is easy to fall prey to.  Your wife asks you to get milk on your way home from work, but you have a long day and forget.  When she greets you at the door wanting to know where the milk is, you snap at her and say something like, “Do you have any idea what my day was like?”  We feel accused of something and so we defend ourselves, but often the act of defending our self tells our partner that we’re not listening to them, and that we don’t take their feelings into consideration.  By defending our self we ignore our partner.  Instead, when we feel defensive a better response is, “Hey, I’m feeling under attack.  I’m sorry I forgot the milk.  I had a long day, and I didn’t mean to ignore your needs.  Can the milk wait until tomorrow?”

To stonewall is to delay or block a request, process or person by refusing to answer questions or by giving evasive replies.  People stonewall to avoid conflict, but avoiding issues only makes them accumulate.  People stonewall by tuning out, turning away, being too busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors.  A spouse who stays up all night playing online poker despite his partner’s invitation to come to bed may be stonewalling issues of intimacy.

If all four horsemen are active and alive in a relationship, it is likely too late to turn things around.  If stonewalling and defensiveness are present, couples counseling can help you and your partner get through whatever issues are blocking your path to a truly happy marriage. However, a partner who engages in criticism or contempt is attacking their partner’s self worth.  It is toxic behavior often stemming from childhood wounds, and anyone participating in this kind of behavior should think seriously about seeking individual counseling.

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