Romantic relationships, like any other relationships in life, are important to fulfill one’s needs for intimacy and social connections. However, not all romantic relationships are about rainbows and butterflies. It also goes through periods and stages of development and deterioration. This article will explain The Four Horsemen of romantic relationships – the most common negative patterns and behaviors that might lead to relationships deterioration – and how to avoid and eliminate them.
The Four Horsemen
In Christianity, The Four Horsemen are symbols of the catastrophic effect of destruction that will come to earth at the end of time. They are conquest, war and bloodshed, famine, and death. Dr. John Gottman applies this concept of destruction into a romantic relationship and describes them as negative communication patterns that, if they keep on occurring, might result in a failed or a very unhappy relationship. For Gottman, these are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Criticism is the first indicator of a growing problem in a romantic relationship that has the potential to ruin its foundation. According to Merriam-Webster, this is “the act of expressing disapproval and of noting the problems or faults of a person or thing”. It is different from a complaint; a complaint addresses the specific issue while criticism attacks the person’s characteristics. When criticism is omnipresent, it causes the victim to feel abused and hurt; constant criticism will escalate the pattern with increasing frequency and intensity which may lead to the next horseman.
The next horseman is contempt which is fueled by the long-simmering of unfavorable feelings and thoughts about a partner and undertaking a position of moral superiority over them. Contempt is the arrogant disdain, denigration, and dismissal of the other’s concerns. It involves sarcasm, name-calling, ridicule, and condescension, among other things. When a person communicates with contempt towards their partner, the receiver is made to feel discounted, despised, and worthless; it erodes self-esteem, confidence, and sense of self.
Defensiveness is typically a response to criticism. When an individual believes to be wrongfully accused by their partner, they look for justifications and play the innocent victim to get their partner to back off. Although it is normal for a person to protect themselves if they feel attacked, defensiveness might escalate the conflict and issue when the other person does not back down. This is because defensiveness is essentially reverse blaming the other partner, preventing a healthy conflict resolution.
The last and the fourth horseman is stonewalling or intentionally refusing to communicate. When someone stonewalls, it’s easy to assume that they’re angry, impolite, childish, or just uninterested in interacting with others or the world. Tuning out, turning away, pretending to be busy, or indulging in compulsive or diverting tasks are all examples of stonewalling behaviors.
More criticism and contempt lead to more defensiveness; eventually, one person will withdraw. The individual who withdraws is usually overwhelmed and begins to shut down as means of self-soothing and calming down. While shutting down during an argument – or sometimes known as the silent treatment – is one method to cope, it can be cruel, irritating, and destructive to the relationship.
The first step to deal with and eliminate the four horsemen is to acknowledge them when they occur. The next step is to replace these unhealthy communication and conflict patterns and behaviors with productive, healthy ones.
- The “I” statement
Each partner can express how they feel and think using the “I” statement. This can be accomplished by avoiding the use of the word “you” which can imply blame. Instead, talk about feelings using “I” statements and express what is needed in a positive manner.
- Appreciation and respect
Creating a positive perspective in a relationship involves consistently expressing appreciation, gratitude, tenderness, and respect for each other. This will work as a buffer against negative feelings. The more positive one feels towards themselves, their partner, and the relationship, the less likely they are to feel or express contempt.
- Invest in the Emotional Bank Account
An Emotional Bank Account is like a financial bank account; instead of depositing or withdrawing money, couples do it with love, affection, and respect through their words and actions. In a six-year follow-up research of newlywed couples by the Gottman Institute, those who stayed married turned to their partner’s attempts for emotional connection 86% of the time in the lab, while those who divorced averaged at 33%. The difference lies in the way they managed their Emotional Bank Account. A way to maintain the balance of the Emotional Bank Account is by following the 5:1 ratio, which entails having five or more positive interactions for every negative interaction, even during disagreement and arguments.
- Take time outs and self-soothe
Allowing for timeouts during a conflict can help couples avoid feeling overwhelmed. If it feels like one partner is stonewalling during a conflict, they should stop the discussion and take a break. While taking a break, they should do something else that calms both down. Once both feel ready, the couple can return to the conversation and resolve the conflict in a calmer way.
Every relationship is not perfect. Each person’s actions and attitude toward it define and predict the health and success of the relationship. By acknowledging and working towards eliminating these horsemen, couples can progress towards building a deeply meaningful relationship that is full of trust and intimacy.