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  • Writer's pictureRMTC Team

How to Stop the Four Horsemen

In our previous blog, we talked about conflict in relationships and how to have healthy fights with your partner(s). According to the researcher and clinical psychologist, John Gottman, “it’s not the appearance of conflict, but rather how it’s managed that predicts the success or failure of a relationship.”

The reason why we say “manage” conflict rather than “resolve,” is because relationship conflicts are natural and does serve functional, positive aspects that provide opportunities for growth and understanding. In his years of research, Gottman was able to identify four negative conversational behaviours which correlate with relational dissatisfaction, separation, and divorce. Those behaviours show up often during conflict, and have been dubbed "the four horsemen".The 4 behaviours that couples use regularly which have been shown to be unhelpful to relationships are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, but fear not, there are antidotes!

1. Criticism usually involves attacking your partner’s personality or character, rather than focusing on the specific behaviour that bothers you. While having disagreements is normal in every relationship, it’s not healthy or fair to attack your spouse’s personality or character in the process. This is the difference between saying, “I’m upset that you didn’t remember our anniversary” and saying, “I can’t believe you forgot. You clearly don’t care about me or us. You always forget important things!”

Antidote: The antidote for criticism is known as a gentle startup. The key is to complain without blame. Focus on using “I” statements and try to avoid saying “you,” which can indicate blame. When there’s no blame or criticism, this prevents the discussion from escalating into an argument. There is a magic formula here, which when used appropriately, can certainly help you to start using the antidote effectively. The formula is a sentence: "I feel _____, about _______, I need ______". Behind every criticism is a wish, a longing for something to be different, an unmet need. This sentence allows you to: identify and share your emotional experience, contextualize it, and express your need in that moment to your partner(s).

2. Contempt can look like mocking, condescension and sarcasm. This can take on many forms such as eye rolling, sneering, and name-calling. In some ways contempt is the physical signals of criticism because it represents long-term disdain for your partner(s). Overtime, if you don’t voice your own needs, or you feel unappreciated, feelings of resentment can build. According to Hanna Stensby, a licensed marriage and family therapist, “these feelings of resentment, if directed towards your partner(s), can become contempt. The most dangerous part about this pent-up resentment and contempt? It negates the respect and admiration we have for our partner(s).”

Antidote: The antidote here for contempt is known as building a culture of appreciation in your relationship. This antidote requires building “a culture of fondness and admiration”. This takes time to build! Simply put - make it a priority to express appreciations to your partner(s) in the moment. Make this a habit! According to research, doing these small things often is what helps to shape this relational culture.

When you build that foundation where you voice appreciation and compliments towards your partner(s), you reduce resentment. You will hold onto this when you feel frustrated, so then you can continue to view them in a positive light. By creating a practice of appreciation for your partner(s), you will reduce contempt within the relationship.

3. Defensiveness in the middle of conflict is a natural response, but this usually does not help the relationship. When a person is defensive, they often experience tension and have difficulty digesting what is being said. Some examples of defensiveness are denying responsibility, and making excuses.

Antidote: The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility. To resolve defensiveness, this does requiring putting your pride to the side. Try taking responsibility for your part of the conflict, this prevents blame and further conflict from escalating. Taking responsibility means that you are aware of your influence in your relational dynamics, and that your partner(s) side of the story is valid...which means their hurt is also valid!

4. Stonewalling is the tendency to just shut down or withdraw from conflict, also known as closing yourself off from your partner(s) instead of engaging with them. Some non-verbal signs of stonewalling are lack of eye contact, arms crossed, looking away, pulling away from physical contact. The person is physically in the room, but they may not be mentally there.

Antidote: The antidote for stonewalling is physiological self-soothing. Try taking breaks during conflict, sometimes fresh air or space can help bring clarity to the situation. You can even go the extra mile to agree on a neutral signal to tell your partner(s) that you need a break. Gottman believed that this can be a word, a phrase, a physical motion like raising both hands into a stop position. But a better solution is to learn how to better handle your own emotions. Instead of building resentment towards your partner(s) or sitting with your own anger, try to focus on developing the tools that help de-escalate your feelings. According to Stensby, “the best way to manage emotional flooding is to self-soothe, and attempt to re-engage by using a soothing touch, or an embrace!” Some other self-soothing techniques are like listening to music, reading, or exercising. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as it helps you to calm down.

The Next Steps:

So, if you and your partner(s) are facing the challenges of the four horsemen, I hope this provided you with different ways to meet in the middle. If you're still feeling stuck, perhaps consider couples therapy as an option. At Relationships Matter Therapy Centre, our goal is to work with your relationship to identify the specific areas of conflict or other aspects of your relationship that you would like to change. We will then, collaboratively, work through these issues in your sessions together. If you feel that your relationship could use some support, reach out – we are here to help when you are ready!

Keys Takeaways

  • It’s not the appearance of conflict, but rather how it’s managed that predicts the success or failure of a relationship.

  • Do not be discouraged when you and your partner(s) face conflict, this is natural in every relationship and does serve functional, positive aspects that provide opportunities for growth and understanding.

  • The first step in effectively managing conflict is to identify and counteract The Four Horsemen (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling) when they arrive in your conflict discussions. If you don’t, you risk serious problems in the future of your relationship.


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