Updated: Apr 19
In the world of relationships, communication is a key factor in maintaining a healthy and fulfilling connection with your partner. However, sometimes communication can break down and lead to negative behaviours that can cause irreparable harm. Dr. John Gottman, a world-renowned relationship expert, has identified four behaviours that can signal the breakdown of a relationship. These behaviours are known as the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," and they can have a devastating impact on a relationship if left unchecked.
With the help of psychotherapy, you can improve your relationship and create a deeper connection with your partner. Keep reading to uncover what each of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," mean, and how therapy can help!
The first horseman is criticism. This involves attacking your partner's character or personality, rather than addressing a specific behaviour. For example, saying "You never listen to me" is a criticism, whereas saying "I feel ignored when you're on your phone while we're talking" is a specific behaviour that can be addressed. Criticism can be especially harmful if it becomes a pattern of communication in the relationship, leading to a loss of respect and emotional distance.
The second horseman is contempt. This involves feelings of disgust or aversion towards your partner, often expressed through sarcasm, eye-rolling, name-calling, or mockery. Contempt is a toxic emotion that can cause significant damage to a relationship, as it creates a sense of superiority and undermines the basic foundation of love and respect.
The third horseman is defensiveness. This involves reacting to criticism with defensiveness or deflection, rather than taking responsibility for your own actions. For example, responding to a complaint about not helping with household chores by saying "I'm tired too!" is a deflection, whereas saying "You're right, I could be doing more to help around the house" is taking responsibility. Defensiveness can escalate conflicts and create a cycle of blame and resentment.
The fourth and final horseman is stonewalling. This involves withdrawing from communication and shutting down emotionally in response to conflict. Stonewalling can be a natural response to feeling overwhelmed or flooded by emotions, but it can be incredibly damaging to a relationship if it becomes a habit. When one partner stonewalls, the other partner can feel rejected, dismissed, or abandoned, leading to further breakdown in communication and emotional distance.
So, what can you do if you find these "Four Horsemen" creeping into your relationship?
First and foremost, it's important to recognize when these behaviours are occurring and try to address them in the moment.
Instead of Criticism, use a Gentle Start-Up
Try to express your feelings using "I" statements, and focus on specific behaviours that you would like to change. Express a positive need.
Instead of Contempt, Build a Culture of Appreciation
Remind yourself of your partner's positive qualities and find gratitude for positive actions.
Instead of Defensiveness, Take Responsibility
Accept your partner's perspective and offer an apology for any wrongdoing. When you notice contempt or defensiveness in your partner, try to take a step back and approach the situation with empathy and understanding.
Instead of Stonewalling, engage in Physiological Self-Soothing
This means taking a break and engaging in self-care activities that can help you regulate your emotions before returning to the conversation. For example, taking a break to go for a walk in nature to soothe and distract yourself.
Booking a psychotherapist can help you and your partner explore any relationship issues and overcome them by providing a safe and neutral space to discuss and work through them.
Individual therapy can help uncover what may be blocking you from allow you to have a satisfying relationship.
Therapy can teach you effective communication skills and help you understand each other's perspectives.
Through therapy, you can learn to identify and manage triggers that lead to these 4 behaviours, and replace them with healthier ways of communicating.
Communication is essential for maintaining a healthy and fulfilling relationship, but it's important to recognize the "Four Horsemen" and work to address them when they arise. By practicing healthy communication skills and addressing conflicts in a constructive manner, you can build a strong and resilient relationship that can withstand the challenges of life!
About The Author
Natasha Filntissis earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Western University. She is a passionate advocate for mental health, & believes in the importance of taking care of one's physical and mental well-being. In addition to her academics, Natasha was also a former semi-professional soccer player. Her favourite self-care activities include journaling, practicing yoga, and Pilates. Natasha intends to pursue a Masters degree in a field of Psychology, & her ultimate goal is to inspire and educate others about the value of mental health and self-care to lead a fulfilling life.