Dr. John Gottman, a notable relationship psychologist and marital stability expert, describes four kinds of negativity that can create relationship problems and has presented several strategies and an array of marriage advice that can be taught to couples to foster relational wellbeing. Dr. Gottman's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are, in essence, four types of negative interactions. The four forms of negativity often emerge in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These particular kinds of negativity, if continuously present, can trigger relationship problems. Even healthy relationships exhibit criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling; the key factors, however, are low frequency and the absence of contempt.
Criticism, the first of the horsemen to ride into town, distinguishes itself from a complaint by being global in nature and attacking the personality of the partner instead of merely focusing on a specific behavior. A complaint addresses a particular action or behavior in which a partner was unsuccessful. Criticism adds negative words or phrases that are intended to find fault with and assassinate the character of the partner, creating additional relationship problems.
Contempt is the most destructive of the four horsemen primarily because it is an expression of disgust. This leads to more and more conflict because a partner who is the recipient of sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor clearly gets the message that they are presently in a relationship where they are viewed with loathing. Whether these expressions are of the verbal or nonverbal type, it is clear that the intent is to put down the other person.
Next, defensiveness has a tendency to rear its head. After being attacked by a series of critical and contemptuous remarks it is only natural for a person to be defensive and deny responsibility. The key here is that defensiveness is actually a way of turning the tables and blaming the attacking partner, thereby serving not only to defend oneself, but also to criticize the other person. This, of course, escalates existing relationship problems.
Stonewalling arrives in the nick of time. At this point one person is usually overwhelmed and the coping behavior they choose is a form of withdrawal. This can be witnessed by an absence of verbal and / or nonverbal feedback during a conversation, or by the choice to simply leave the presence of the attacking partner. Whether or not this serves to intensify the conflict, it certainly does nothing to reduce the negativity between partners.
Turning to a more positive topic, Dr. John Gottman also describes several fundamental strategies and an array of marriage advice that many couples have used to improve the quality of their relationship. These strategies not only enhance the wellbeing of the relationship — they also serve to turn back the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In no particular order, the strategies elucidated here are: 1) calming down; 2) speaking nondefensively; 3) overlearning; and, 4) paying attention to the little things.
Calming down is not as simple as one might think at first glance. It is actually a two-step process. First, a person must become aware of his or her own style of reactivity. Only then can he or she move towards taking the next step, which entails the regulation of reactions.
Speaking nondefensively is a strategy that assists couples in the expression of feelings and thoughts in a manner that will evoke a positive response. When conflicts and disagreements come up, this helps couples approach the topic and each other in a softer manner. This will help them to avoid a harsh startup, which will, in turn, enable them to prevent defensive responding and maintain a positive atmosphere.
Overlearning is an approach that is specifically geared to the learning and application of behavioral responses that lead to healthy emotional regulation. Self-soothing, nondefensive listening and speaking, and validating are all useful strategies when disagreements arise. They also serve to increase the overall level of positive affect in the relationship. Most importantly, when a serious conflict raises its head, a person who has regularly practiced these behaviors is better equipped to utilize them automatically and respond in a healthy manner.
Paying attention to the little things refers to the moment-by-moment awareness of daily interaction patterns. The regular exchanges between partners hold the opportunity for emotional connection through observing and responding to the other's bids for attention. Noticing attempts at humor, affection, and playfulness, and then reciprocating with equally constructive behaviors, leads to increasing the positivity in the relationship.
The first and most important strategy for someone to master, because of the almost universal experience of flooding, is calming down. As mentioned above, the starting point in utilizing this coping mechanism is self-awareness. By focusing attention on physiological changes, such as an increase in pulse rate, people involved in disagreements can provide themselves with concrete evidence that they need to take immediate action in order to maintain positive feelings toward their partner. Once awareness of emotional and physiological arousal is established, it is then possible to begin taking steps to regulate reactivity. A number of techniques can be employed, such as taking time-outs or utilizing relaxation activities, which can assist in the reduction of arousal. It is important for both partners in a relationship to understand the need for arousal reduction in order to avoid the escalation of conflict and maintain positive affect.