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Roamers Therapy I July 2024

Disagreements are a natural part of any relationship, but why do some couples navigate arguments smoothly while others get stuck in endless conflicts? From moving forward to this question, John Gottman and Bob Levinson started searching for relationships and couples 40 years ago. They observed couples and especially their communication styles during conflicts, and they detected four unhealthy communication styles that turn arguments into more significant conflicts: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. John Gottman describes these communication habits as dysfunctional in relationship conflict and part of an escalation of negativity. These unhealthy communication skills are named after the “Four Horsemen of Apocalypse”  as a new metaphor from the New Testament. Such as conquest, war, hunger, and death might lead to humanity’s breakdown; criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling might also lead to a communication breakdown. In this therapy sketch, we will discuss the four horsemen of the apocalypse in relationships and how to address them. 

Communication Between Couples

Communication means exchanging information between partners, such as thoughts, feelings, and needs. It contains verbal and nonverbal interactions to provide understanding and emotional connectedness. In verbal interaction, partners scope expression of emotions and thoughts, active listening, and constructive feedback. Non-verbal communication, which is as important as verbal communication, scopes body language such as gestures and facial expressions, eye contact, and physical intimacy.  We use different communication styles and read our partner’s thoughts, emotions, and needs via daily check-ins and affirmations. However, in case of disagreements, the communication style is of great importance in de-escalating the heat of the disagreement. Using a dysfunctional communication style can cause conflicts to be prolonged and leave one or both sides with negative emotions, which erode the relationship over time. The critical point is how to manage communication during moments of disagreement to avoid this eroding. According to Gotmann’s research, four dysfunctional communication styles employed in conflicts can harm relationships: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Using one of these may seem to damage a relationship at first superficially, but it can be fundamentally damaging when used repeatedly. 

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse

According to Gotmann, couples who handle disagreements and conflicts with understanding and avoid the four horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) de-escalate tension and connect emotionally during a disagreement. In contrast, couples who utilize four horsemen as communication styles tend to fall into negative patterns. Criticism is blaming the other party for not only actions but also personality traits. It blocks constructive feedback on the disagreement you are having with your partner. Defensiveness is making statements during disagreement only to turn the tables. It blocks effective communication between you and your partner. Contempt is undermining the reactions of the other party by minimizing. It blocks respect and understanding between you and your partner. Stonewalling is not reacting to the other party’s verbal and non-verbal actions. It blocks dialogue between you and your partner and causes frustration rooted in miscommunication. These four horsemen give structural damage to emotional connectedness, trust, and intimacy over time and make conflict more challenging to resolve. Here are examples of hour horsemen and what it could look like:

  • Criticism: Criticism is showing disapproval of another based on detected faults or defects. Criticism could look like as follows:
    • Using statements that include “always,” “never,” “constantly,” and “all the time.” 
    • Using “Why” questions such as “Why are you acting like this?” 
    • Making jokes about your partner’s flaws, such as “You must have a superpower—making responsibilities invisible!”
    • “Should” statements can cause someone to feel judged or shamed, such as “You should try to be on time for once. It’s not that hard.”
    • Fixing something your partner did “wrong” is a non-verbal way that criticism can present in the relationship, and expresses “your way is right, and they are wrong.” 
  • Defensiveness: Defensiveness is self-protection, which can look like focusing on the other person rather than what is being said with a counterattack based on blame and not taking any accountability for their part. There is more focus on the words without listening to what the other person says. Defensiveness could look like as follows:
    • “It’s not my fault this is happening; it’s yours.” 
    • “…but you did this. 
    • “I was just too busy today. You know how busy my schedule is! Why didn’t you just do it?”
  • Contempt: Contempt is when statements come from a position of superiority and often look like put-downs or insults to the other person. Contempt could look like as follows:
    • Disrespecting your partner
    • Mocking or using sarcasm 
    • hostile humor, name-calling, mimicking, and body language such as eye-rolling and sneering
  • Stonewalling: Stonewalling is when an emotional withdrawal from the interaction occurs. It can appear that the listener is not giving the speaker any verbal or nonverbal signals that they are engaged in the conversation.
    • when you feel there is a wall between you and your partner 
    • You or your partner feel “checked out.” 
    • Your or your partner has reached a fight-or-flight state.

Antidotes for Four Horsemen

  • Antidote for criticism: You can use a gentle start-up. This could look like having the individual state, “I feel ___ about ___, and I need ___.” and stating an affirmative need, not what they don’t want. It’s about shifting from the external (what you don’t like about your partner’s behavior) to the internal (how you feel and what you need) so that your partner can hear you and you can get your needs met.
  • Antidote for defensiveness: You can take responsibility; this could look like asking if they could take any responsibility, maybe say “fair enough”  or “good point.” 
  • Antidote for contempt: You can describe your own feelings and needs. This could look similar to criticism: “I feel ___ about ___, and I need ___.” Please avoid using “you” statements and build a foundation of fondness and admiration by reconnecting to the history of your relationship and by incorporating more frequent expressions of appreciation, kindness, support, and love.
  • Antidote for stonewalling: Stopping and taking a deep breath is your first step. It’s not possible to continue talking or trying to resolve if you or your partner use stonewalling, so you and your partner must be able to dialogue that it is time to take a break. Breaks should last at least 20 minutes or long enough for you to calm down physiologically. If that happens in a therapy session, the therapist may point out, “I think you’re flooded right now; what’s going on?” or “This might be a good time to do some self-soothing.” You can use the following self-soothing techniques below.
    • Placing your hand on your belly and deep breathing
    • Flexing different parts of the body and releasing.
    • Thinking of a place where you feel calm.
    • Listening to music, going for a walk, etc.

How to Prevent Weaponizing the Four Horsemen?

You might notice that you or your partner use one or more of these horsemen without intention. Getting insight into your and your partner’s communication style during disagreements and using antidotes when you employ it might help you and your partner get through the disagreement with less damage. However, if one of the horsemen is in constant use during conflicts and you or your partner don’t know how to manage it without weaponizing, a few more steps might taken. Let’s imagine you noticed that you and your partner have a disagreement about housework, and you feel constantly criticized about it. Here are some suggestions about preventing your partner from weaponizing the four horsemen. 

  • Gentle Startups: As we mentioned earlier, disagreements are natural. However, how you present them is as important as how you handle them. For example, a statement of your need, such as “I’ve been overwhelmed with housework lately. Can we talk about how we can share the load?” would be a great start to discussing this disagreement rather than saying, “Why can’t you do the laundry?”. How you present the disagreement might lead your partner to employ one of the horsemen, such as defensiveness. 
  • Accepting influence from each other: It is related to being open to your partner’s thoughts, feelings, and suggestions. For example, offering, “How about we both make a suggestion, try both suggestions back to back, and then assess to see which one is working for both of us?” would help you and your partner find the middle ground. By accepting influence, you can help your partner understand that the aim is not criticizing, focusing on problem-solving, and being open to compromise.
  • De-escalation of negativity: People are likely to experience anger during disagreements. However, it is essential to acknowledge that the actual reason behind the negativity pattern is the four horsemen, not the negative emotions. It would be necessary to notice negative emotions while they’re happening and give a break to calm down. For example, saying, “I think we’re both a bit stressed right now. Let’s take a moment to breathe and start over later.” would be beneficial for you and your partner to calm down and prevent using one of the horsemen, such as stonewalling.
  • Repair attempts: It is hard to detect whether you or your partner are using one of the horsemen. If you notice it during or after the conflict, you can employ a repair attempt by using humor, saying affection, taking responsibility, using soothing words, or asking for a break. Pointing out which part hurt you, such as “That hurt my feelings. I really want to resolve this together.” would help your partner to acknowledge your feelings and employ repair attempts. 

Employing healthy communication styles in everyday communication and disagreement helps you and your partner find a firm ground for your relationship. It does not only affect concurrent issues but also perpetual issues you and your partner might encounter or help you navigate how to address future problems. Four Horsemen of Apocalypse illustrates a robust reminder of the how destructive patterns that erode relationships. Recognizing and addressing these dysfunctional communication styles helps you and your partner to build a supportive and loving environment where you both feel heard, valued, and respected. However, acknowledging the four horsemen and how to use its antidotes might be a challenging task for you and your partner. Seeking professional help from a counselor might help you better address disagreements and improve communication styles during conflicts. 

While our physical offices are located in South Loop and Lakeview neighborhoods in Chicago, Illinois for in-person sessions, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more.  

This page is also part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.

While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.