Gabriella Nissan, Psy.D.
Learn to Fight Fair: Breaking the Cycle of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
In a previous blog post, we discussed the Sound Relationship House, a model developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman that outlines the factors that contribute to healthy and functional relationships. The fifth floor of the Sound Relationship House, Manage Conflict, emphasizes patterns that can effectively improve how a couple communicates and manages conflict. Gottman also notes four distinct patterns of communication that can damage a relationship and result in perpetual conflict. Gottman refers to the four patterns, criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling, as "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." These four communication patterns and their antidotes will be discussed below using an example that most can relate to: taking out the garbage.
Criticism refers to stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s partner’s personality by giving the partner negative trait attributions. For example, “you never take out the garbage.” Criticism is very different than a critique. A critique is where one expressed frustration of disappointment about something specific. For example, "You didn't take out the garbage last night". There is no assault on the person's character in this statement. A criticism, on the other hand, is a characterological and categorical statement about the other person. Through saying, "You never take out the garbage, you are communicating something quite different. You are the kind of person who wouldn't take out the garbage, i.e. you're selfish, irresponsible, or lazy. When a partner feels criticized or attacked in a relationship, their sense of safety and security within the relationship is negatively impacted. Furthermore, criticism in relationships typically leads to feeling unappreciated and unaccepted by one’s partner.
The antidote for criticism is to use Gentle Start-up. Gottman describes Gentle Start-up as utilizing a gentle approach and emphasizes talking about one’s feelings using I-statements and expressing a positive need (i.e., hopes, wishes, desires). The following structure can be used for Gentle Start-up: “I feel ___ about ___ and I need ___.” An example of Gentle Start-up using the context in the example above is: “I feel overwhelmed about our house being dirty and it's important to me that you take out the garbage.” It is imperative to replace criticism with Gentle Start-up, as criticism often leads to the second of the four horsemen, defensiveness.
Gottmans’ definition of defensiveness is self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood, which wards off a perceived attack. Defensiveness can come in three forms: deflecting, rejecting, and reflecting. Deflecting refers to responding to a criticism by bringing up other evidence to disprove it. For example, responding to the criticism “you never take out the garbage” by saying “but I washed the dishes!” This deflection serves to disprove the criticizer and thus protects the individual from a characterological put-down. An example of rejecting the criticism “you never take out the garbage” is: “yes I do, I took out the garbage on Thursday!” This response also serves to paint the responder as being wrongly assigned this criticism and thus volleys the comment back to the criticizer. Reflecting a criticism is when the responder sends a criticism back to the criticizing partner. In response to being criticized about not taking out the garbage, the responder may retort, “Well you never fold the laundry!” This response serves to displace the criticism back on the criticizer, sparing the responder from being the characterologically flawed one and the sole source of dysfunction.
From an evolutionary perspective, defensiveness is an adaptive strategy which protects us from being seen as wrong, bad, or flawed. This serves to create a perceived sense of safety. However, in the context of relationships, defensiveness has damaging consequences. With each volley of a criticism and defensive response, the criticizer feels the need to amplify their attack, fearing their need will not be met since the responder is clearly not getting the intended message. This can result in more aggressive criticism, increased volume, or pulling up specific evidence to prove that the criticizer is correct in their perception. This would naturally result in the responder increasing their defensive posturing, leading to an endless cycle of escalation. This pattern can become, understandably, exhausting. The depletion of emotional energy will likely lead to an individual giving up on attempting to connect with their partner. When couples get stuck in a cycle of criticism and defensiveness, the sense of fondness and admiration within the relationship diminishes. Given the negative consequences of defensiveness in relationships, it is important to eliminate this pattern of behavior.
The antidote for defensiveness is accepting responsibility, for even a part of the problem. When we accept responsibility for something we did wrong, we reduce the material for a conflict to persist. If, in response to the statement, "You never take out the garbage!", the responder says, "You're correct, I forgot to take out the garbage last night". By agreeing with the criticizer, and showing that the feedback is being received, it promotes a de-escalation of the conflict. This act of taking responsibility does not mean we are tacitly accepting the pattern of criticism. At a time and place where it is conducive to have a conversation about this interaction, the responder may approach the partner and share, "It is upsetting when I feel criticized, I'd appreciate if you shared your feedback in a gentler way if I forget to do something." (Notice the gentle startup here!)
Contempt is defined as statements that come from a relative position of superiority that escalate negativity, which Gottman identifies as the strongest predictor of the deterioration of a relationship. The following is an example of contempt: “You’re such a disgusting animal… You let all the garbage pile up… You’re such a pig!” Contempt can also be communicated non-verbally, such as eye-rolls or scoffs. Through both verbal and non-verbal contempt, the contemptuous partner is communicating that they think very little of their partner. They are less than. Worthless. Useless. Feeling belittled, scorned, and ridiculed by one’s partner negatively impacts the sense of safety, security, and acceptance in the relationship. Furthermore, it affects other areas of the Sound Relationship House such as the Positive Perspective. When contempt is present in a relationship, the partners will likely maintain a negative perspective of the other person, meaning that they interpret most interactions through a negative lens.
Given the damaging effects of contempt on relationships, it must be eliminated. Gottman describes the antidote for contempt as describing your own feelings and needs, while refraining from describing your partner. In describing one's own experiences, the speaker is focusing on bringing the listener into their experiences, to understand them, instead of putting down the partner. The more opportunities a couple has to see their partner's positive intentions and responding in a way that is curious and compassionate, it allows the couple to focus on building a culture of appreciation and respect.
Finally, Gottman describes stonewalling as emotional withdrawal from an interaction, such as the listener not giving the speaker the usual nonverbal signals that they are tracking the conversation. Examples of stonewalling include looking away from one’s partner and turning one’s back toward their partner. Stonewalling is related to physiological activation in which the body goes into a state of alarm and defense, commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. Gottman describes this process as “diffuse physiological arousal” and “flooding” to describe this physiological experience which causes a person is fully activated. When an individual experiences diffuse physiological arousal, there are limits to their ability to listen to and process new information, to be empathetic, or to be creative in problem-solving. Furthermore, diffuse physiological arousal increases the occurrence of defensiveness, as some tunnel vision is involved which causes it to be difficult to view things from others’ perspectives. Stonewalling causes the speaker to feel ignored, unheard, and disregarded by their partner.
The antidote for stonewalling is for the partner to self-soothe in order to stay emotionally connected while their partner is speaking. This process of gently slowing down the physiological activation found in diffuse physiological arousal allows the listener to increase their openness to receiving the information he speaker is trying to share and to be able to respond with curiosity and gentle startup. Examples of self-soothing strategies include deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation exercises. The purpose of practicing self-soothing strategies is to bring your body back to a state of physiological stability, so that you can engage in a meaningful conversation with your partner.
If you recognize the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in your relationship, you and your partner may benefit from practicing replacing these problematic patterns of communication with their antidotes. As with any other behavior, changing a pattern of communication takes time, practice, and patience.