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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

by Howard Lambert, Ph.D.

According to John Gottman, Ph.D., “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” are behaviors that, if they occur regularly, are very good predictors of either a failed or a terminally unhappy relationship. If you discover that any of these occur often in your relationship, you and your partner are most likely heading for trouble. The “Four Horsemen” are:

  1. Criticism versus Complaint. A complaint addresses only the specific action at which your partner has failed. A criticism is global. It attacks the matefs character or personality. Here is an example: Complaint: “There is no gas in the car. I’m aggravated that you didn’t fill it up like you said you would.” Criticism: “You never remember anything! You can’t be counted on for your word!”
  2. Contempt. Contempt is composed of a set of behaviors that communicate disgust. It includes, but is not limited to: sneering, sarcasm, namecalling, eye rolling, mockery, hostile humor and condescension. It is primarily transmitted through non-verbal behaviors. It does not move toward reconciliation and inevitably increases the conflict. It is always disrespectful. Research shows couples that display contempt for each other suffer more illnesses and diseases than respectful couples.
  3. Defensiveness. These behaviors convey the message, “The problem is not me. It’s you.” From this position you imply that, because your partner threw the first stone, they are responsible for the entire conflict. You avoid taking responsibility for your own behavior by pointing to something they did prior to their complaint about you. You do not acknowledge that which is true in what they are saying about your behavior.
  4. Stonewalling. In relationships where intense arguments break out suddenly, and where criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, and where more contempt leads to more defensiveness, eventually one partner tunes out. This is the beginning of stonewalling. The stonewaller acts as if he (research indicates that 85% of stonewallers in marriages are husbands) couldn’t care less about what the partner is saying or doing. He (sometimes she) turns away from conflict and from the relationship. Any form of disengagement can be stonewalling.

If either you or your partner regularly engages in ANY of these behaviors during fights, you have some work to do if you want to ensure the success and happiness of your relationship. The Four Horsemen corrode the love that is at the core of an intimate relationship.

What are the antidotes for these problem behaviors? There are many! Here are some suggestions:

  1. Learn how to mirror your partner’s complaints.
  2. Scan for whatever is valid in your partner’s complaint and address that.
  3. Speak respectfully even when angry.
  4. Practice holding yourself and your partner in warm regard, even when feeling distant or during a fight.
  5. Learn the skills of repairing damage in the relationship.
  6. Always live up to your agreements (or renegotiate if you can’t.)
  7. Make all requests of your partner clear, simple and specific.
  8. Practice sharing compliments, appreciations and praise daily.

If you and your partner find it difficult to replace the Four Horsemen with more loving behaviors, the therapists at the RRC can help. They are experts in coaching couples in how to re-establish intimacy in damaged relationships. Some therapy or a weekend couples’ retreat can help you repair and/or deepen the loving commitment between you.