NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, November 1, 2021

Improve Communication in Your Relationship By Eliminating the "4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse"

Relationship expert, John Gottman, Ph.D., came up with a metaphor to describe destructive communication in relationships which he calls the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a term which was originally used in the Bible to describe the four elements of the end times: conquest, war, hunger and death (see my article: Improving Communication).

Eliminate the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse

What Are the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse?
According to the Dr. Gottman, the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse in a relationship are:
  • Criticism
  • Contempt 
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling
Let's take a look at each one to understand why these actions represent destructive communication styles that can lead to the demise of a relationship:
  • Criticism:  When you express a complaint to your partner, it's different from attacking him or her personally.  When you criticize your partner, s/he feels rejected and hurt.  Here's the difference:
Complaint: "I feel sad that you forgot my birthday."
Criticism: "You never remember my birthday because it's not important to you. You're selfish!"

Note that in the first example, the complaint, you're speaking from your own experience ("I felt") whereas in the second example, the criticism, you're making a personal attack on your partner's character.  

Criticism is especially damaging when it happens frequently.  Furthermore, you're not likely to resolve the problem if you use criticism (see my article: Learn How to Stop Criticizing Each Other).
  • Contempt: Contempt is worse than criticism.  When you address your partner with contempt, you're being mean.  Contempt includes sarcasm, ridicule, name calling, and cursing your partner, among other things.  You're showing disrespect for your partner, and you're speaking to your partner from a position of moral superiority:
Contempt: "You forgot to bring home the milk! I give you one thing to do and you're too stupid to even do that."

Note that contempt is often fueled by longstanding resentment towards a partner that comes out in a toxic way.
  • Defensiveness: Defensiveness is a common problem.  When you feel criticized by your partner, you find excuses for your behavior. Unfortunately, this doesn't resolve the problem because your partner is likely to feel that his or her concerns aren't important to you.
Defensiveness: "So what! I forgot to bring the milk. You know I've had a lot of things on my mind. Why didn't you have one of the kids get it?"

Note that, aside from not resolving the problem, you're also not taking responsibility for your part, and you're pointing an accusatory finger at your partner.  

By being defensive, you're also just escalating the conflict (see my article: Habitual Defensiveness Can Ruin Your Relationship).
  • Stonewalling: Stonewalling usually occurs when the listener becomes overwhelmed by contempt.  The listener can either tune out, walk away, distract him or herself and, generally, shut down emotionally (see my article: Are You a Stonewaller?).
People who stonewall are often shutting down to regroup emotionally.  The problem is that they often don't tell their partner that they need to take a break from the conflict to calm down.  

The other problem is that people who make a habit of stonewalling appear to be calm on the outside, but they're flooded with stress on the inside.  

Since people who stonewall appear to be calm externally, the other partner will often double down on their criticism in an effort to provoke the partner to speak.  

This starts a destructive cycle where the person who is stonewalling shuts down more and more and the other partner escalates their argument.  Soon they're caught in a destructive cycle.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're like most people, you learned how to communicate from what you observed in your family of origin.  

If you weren't lucky enough to come from a family where you experienced healthy communication, you might have developed destructive communication habits.

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to enhance your communication skills to maintain a healthy relationship.

Rather than continuing in destructive communication patterns that could lead to the demise of your relationship, seek help from a licensed mental health professional.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing therapist and Sex Therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.