As outlined in our previous post, Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) are communication styles that spell disaster for any relationship. Good news is that if the Horsemen are galloping through your home, you can tether them by making a few key changes.

  1. The first Horseman is criticism. To recap, criticism refers to making negative judgments about your partner, as a person, rather than their actions. This could mean implying that, when your husband doesn’t pick up groceries, it’s a symptom of his poor character, rather than simply an oversight. If this is your tendency, it’s time to reevaluate your behaviour, and express your concerns in ways that do not leave your partner feeling attacked. The next time you feel irritated by something your partner did (or didn’t do), state how you feel, and then provide a concrete statement about what you need. Dr. Gottman refers to this process as a “gentle start-up.” To clarify, instead of stating, “I can’t believe you didn’t stop at the grocery store on your way home; you never help me,” you could say, “It was my understanding you were going to go grocery shopping on Mondays. I feel stressed when I’m trying to cook dinner, and we’re missing key ingredients. Moving forward, would you be able to go shopping on Mondays after work?” By eliminating the blame, and getting specific about your wishes, gentle start-ups prevent your complaints from escalating into conflict; instead, they open the door to discussion. Your partner will likely address your concerns more quickly if you show understanding toward them, despite their lapses.
  2. Contempt is the most destructive Horseman. It’s cloaked in moral superiority, and can include name-calling, sneering, mockery, and cruel sarcasm. It takes criticism and raises it several notches, with the intention of tearing your partner down. Using the grocery shopping example above, contempt could sound like this: “You didn’t go grocery shopping? Again? What’s wrong with you? You’re selfish and absent-minded just like your father.” If this is how you sound, keep reading. According to Dr. Gottman, the corrective measure for contempt is to focus on appreciation and respect – not just at the time of disagreement, but in general. It’s crucial to frequently express gratitude and affection toward your partner in order to create a buffer for negative feelings. The more loving you feel, the more likely you are to avoid expressing contempt; and by frequently speaking kind words to your partner, they’re equally likely to avoid speaking to you in a disparaging manner. Dr. Gottman has also advocated the “magic ratio” of 5 to 1. For a relationship to thrive, there must be at least five positive interactions for each negative interaction. He describes this as making regular deposits into the relationship’s emotional bank account to prevent it from going bankrupt. This could mean giving compliments, asking your partner questions about their day, or sending them funny text messages. After all, it’s not the big positive gestures (like roses and candle lit dinners) that make a relationship strong, but the collection of many tiny gestures. A caveat: often, when our partner is acting poorly, we are tempted to match their behaviour. Take the high road, choose love, and it’s very possible your partner will come around. 
  3. The third Horseman is defensiveness. Defensiveness is generally a response to criticism or contempt. It functions to dismiss or invalidate your partner’s concerns. Let’s imagine you are the husband in the example above who hadn’t picked up groceries. If your partner called you on it, a defensive response might be to snap, “I may have forgotten to get groceries today, but you forgot last week. And you also forgot to unload the dishwasher.” By refusing to accept responsibility, you’re essentially saying that your partner’s concerns are of little meaning to you, and you’re not amenable to figuring out a solution. Your partner will interpret your words as a rejection, not only of their complaint, but also of them. Admitting your role in a problem shows you’re willing to remedy the issue. Try saying, for example, “You’re right. I totally forgot I had agreed to stop at the grocery store. I understand it stresses you out when the fridge is half-empty. What if I go shopping after dinner?” Putting your ego aside to apologize and make reparations will go a long way. It may feel hard to do this at the time, but the benefits will exceed the initial discomfort. Your partner will feel heard, and will be more likely to listen to you when you have concerns. 
  4. The final Horseman is stonewalling, which means severing communication with your partner. In some relationships, this looks like the “silent treatment.” Stonewalling generally occurs when you feel too emotionally overwhelmed to continue engaging. Before harshly terminating the discussion, let your partner know where you’re coming from, and how much time you need to cool off. For example, you could say, “I’m sorry to cut you off, but I need to calm down. Let’s take a break, and revisit this in an hour.” Though it’s tempting to storm off and slam the door behind you, this behaviour will not move you closer to your ultimate goal: a strong relationship with your significant other. The time-out should last at least twenty minutes because it will take that long for your body to settle down, physiologically, and for you to begin thinking clearly. During this cooling-off period, avoid obsessively thinking about the things you dislike about your partner, and all the hurtful things they’ve said and done. Place your attention, instead, on self-soothing. Focus on comforting yourself using each of your five senses: touch, taste, sight, hearing, and smell. This will look different for everyone, but it could mean wrapping yourself in a soft blanket, having a hot cup of tea, looking at photographs of your last vacation, listening to music, or smelling some lavender oil. Remind yourself that the hurt you’re feeling in this moment will pass once your body regulates itself. This is not the time to figure out solutions; it’s the time to be kind to yourself. When you reunite with your partner, the goal is to feel clearer-minded, and as though you can come from a place of compassion. When you have calmed down, you’re much more likely to grasp what’s lying behind the anger – whether that means shame, guilt, or hurt. 

Disagreements are inevitable in a relationship. However, when managed effectively, they can result in its growth, rather than its deterioration.