Every relationship has its conflicts and communication issues.
But not all relationship problems are created equal.
Research from esteemed psychologist and relationship expert Dr. John Gottman reveals at least four characteristics which tend to spell serious trouble for intimate partners.
So damaging are their effects that together they’ve earned an ominous nickname—The Four Horsemen. But while the New Testament’s version of The Four Horsemen represent the end of times, the Four Horsemen of Relationships don’t necessarily lead to the end of a relationship…
At least not when couples learn how to identify these characteristics and replace them with healthier ones.
The Four Horsemen Who Could be Harming Your Relationship
This is different from constructive feedback and complaints—both of these, while potentially perceived as “negative,” can be legitimate ways to express concerns over a specific issue or situation.
Harmful criticism rests on absolutes and questions the person’s entire character, rather than a specific trait or behavior. Statements such as “You’re always late” or “You’re so selfish and you never listen to me” are good example of unhealthy criticism. Instead of acknowledging a specific concern (e.g., “I feel frustrated when you show up late”), an overly critical partner will put down their loved one in an ill-suited attempt to express their frustration.
If criticisms continue unabated, the recipient may begin to feel hurt, rejected, and under attack. Unfortunately, this can pave the way for the other Horsemen to enter the relationship.
Contempt is the darker side of criticism. Beyond merely putting a person down, the contemptuous partner assumes moral superiority over them. They feel “better than” their partner and attempt to make him or her feel worthless. Cruel and unloving sarcasm, ridicule, and mean-spirited language (verbal and non-verbal) will be prevalent.
Amazingly, contempt doesn’t only hurt a person emotionally. Research shows that couples who have contempt are more likely to become ill. This is likely related to the fact that chronic stress—often brought about by a toxic and unhealthy relationship—weakens the immune system.
Being criticized again and again often causes a partner to feel and act defensively. He or she may come up with excuses in an attempt to explain away what their partner is accusing them of, rather than assuming personal responsibility or trying to see things from their partner’s perspective.
While understandable, defensiveness isn’t an effective conflict resolution strategy. Defensiveness can fuel feelings of contempt and resentment, and often leads to a back-and-forth blame game that is unproductive, destructive, and stressful.
The last of The Four Horsemen is essentially a diversion tactic. One or both partners—usually in response to overwhelming negativity created by the three other Horsemen—withdraws, shuts down, and stops interacting or communicating. Instead of confronting the issue or seeking help, a stonewalling person simply evades the situation, often by walking away, tuning out, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or repetitive behaviors.
Reining In the Four Horsemen: An Antidote to Relationship Dysfunction
The first step in eliminating The Four Horsemen from a relationship is becoming aware of their presence. Couples must learn to recognize these traits when they show up; working with a licensed marriage counselor or other mental health professional can help.
The next step is to replace these negative traits with positive ones. These include:
- Discussing concerns or complaints using “I statements”
- Regularly expressing gratitude and appreciation
- Taking personal responsibility and offering genuine apologies when indicated
- Taking breaks when feeling stressed or overwhelmed