The Four Horsemen
John Gottman is a highly respected author and researcher in the field of Couples Therapy. To demonstrate, one of his most insightful and informative contributions to the field of Couple’s Therapy/Marriage Counseling is what he describes as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
There are four interactions between couples that are profoundly damaging to romantic relationships, especially when experienced consistently and over time. Undeniably, couples can get stuck in these interactions and feel angry, frustrated, and hopeless. Without a doubt, the four horsemen can play a significant role in ending a relationship, which can be the worst-case scenario.
The four horsemen are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt. Additionally, Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, describes the criticism/defensiveness dynamic as “demon dialogues.”
Criticism & Defensiveness
Most couples have had experiences with criticism and defensiveness and know the damaging emotional impact they create. Unquestionably, much of the conflict I see between couples is rooted in criticism and defensiveness. Furthermore, the speed in which “the demon dialogues” can pull a couple into their negative relationship cycle can happen in a nano-second.
Stonewalling is shutting down, and creating a seemingly impenetrable wall and emotional distance. As a result, the couple loses connection. When partners live their lives being physically present and emotionally absent, it can be a truly sad and lonely experience.
Contempt is a feeling of distain which can be manifested verbally in putdowns and sarcasm or nonverbally in body language. Examples are weaponizing words, eyerolling, and mocking laughter. This produces a heavy emotional toll to the partner on the receiving end of it. Undoubtedly, of the four, contempt is the most harmful to a relationship.
De-escalation and Hope
When a couple recognizes their relationship has one or all these characteristics in it, it can be an overwhelming and depressing feeling. Emphatically, the good news is that once these issues are identified, the therapist and the couple can work together in Marriage Counseling/Couple’s Therapy to significantly reduce their impact.
Gaining insight and understanding into the damage the four horsemen can cause, is the first step. Secondly, the couple commits to working together as a team, to reduce these destructive interactions. Thereafter, the couple learns to slow the process down and create emotional safety together. This leads to honest and deeper communication, empathy, the ability to authentic, and more flexible. As a result, safer and more secure connection is achieved, which is life-changing.