The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Relationships are hard. They’re messy, complicated, scary, frustrating…and also the greatest, most fulfilling, and most important part of life. I would classify ALL relationships – with friends, your children, your parents, your siblings – in this way, but especially romantic relationships.
Why do so many relationships between spouses and significant others fail? No relationship is perfect, but what makes one relationship last and thrive, and another crash and burn?
There is, of course, no one answer to that question. However, with many years of counseling couples under my belt, I can tell you that there are ways to predict relationship success.
Dr. John Gottman’s best selling book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, is one that I highly recommend to couples. Our counselors and I use his 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' metaphor quite often. Simply put, these are Gottman’s four markers of relationship failure. He claims to be able to predict, with over 90% accuracy, the likelihood of a marriage ending in divorce based on these patterns. In my experience, these markers are spot on.
Here’s a brief outline of Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:
- Criticism: We all are bothered by certain things our partner does. Some things are small, while some will drive you absolutely crazy. HOW you communicate that craziness is key. When that communication is all about criticism of the other person and not a discussion about a specific behavior, you have trouble. For example, “OMG are you that lazy that you can’t remember to put down the toilet seat?!?!” is criticism. Framing it as, “It really bothers me when you don’t put the toilet seat down. Would you please try and remember to do so next time?” is a much healthier approach.
- Contempt: This is an expression of superiority that often comes out as snarky and sarcastic. Name calling, demeaning statements, hostile humor, and contemptuous distain are used to make the other person feel foolish and inferior. This kind of disrespect and lack of gentleness shown toward each other will cause significant relationship damage.
- Stonewalling: This occurs when the listener withdraws from the conversation before the couple has reached resolution. The “stonewaller” might actually physically leave the room and walk away. Stonewallers (80% are men) shut down and might appear as though they don’t care, but more likely he or she is overwhelmed by the intensity of the argument and emotions. It takes a lot to get to this point, but when someone in the relationship DOES start to stonewall, it’s very difficult for that person to re-engage. This is when all communication breaks down. One partner needs to walk away and decompress, while the other needs to endlessly talk, discuss, process, vent, and express his or her point of view. The best remedy is to take a break, even for only 15 or 20 minutes, allowing time for emotions to cool down and for calmer heads and hearts to prevail.
- Defensiveness: Gottman defines this as self-protection through righteous indignation, aka playing the victim. Blaming your partner for everything that is going wrong in the relationship so that you don’t have to take any responsibility for your own part breaks down all healthy dialogue. The “antidote,” as Gottman calls it, to destructive defensiveness is to take responsibility for your role in the conflict.
Here’s a great video about Gottman’s Four Horsemen. Take a look.
The key to it all? Communication, trust, honesty, and intimacy.
At Foundations Counseling, we use proven techniques to help spouses and significant others navigate issues in their relationships. Our therapists help couples with a broad spectrum of relationship obstacles. We help you identify the strengths in your relationship and the patterns to avoid, as well as shoring up the areas where you might need reinforcements. You will learn how to turn disagreements into information that can help you and your partner.