“The Four Horsemen”: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling
What does it mean to be a healthy couple?
Healthy couples are those who intentionally engage in healthy communication styles. They respectfully solve their problems with a mutual effort and understanding, and the only way to do this is to have effective communication skills.
John Gottman describes the four destructive communication habits that may lead to a relationship failure. He refers to “criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling” as the “Four Horsemen of Apocalypse” and he often uses these communication habits to predict if a marriage will result with a divorce or not.
It is fair to say that all couples engage in these communication habits in some form at some time. These communication habits are natural human responses and none of us are exempt from them. However, you may engage in one of these more frequently than the others as your dominant communication style. I describe each communication habits below and at the end of each description, I provide you with an antidote. These antidotes will improve your communication when you intentionally apply them in your conversations.
1.Criticism: It is one of the most common communication habits. Criticism is different than a complaint because it is more general and often targets a personality trait rather than complaining about a certain issue.
Example for criticism: “You are lazy. You never pick up your clothes after yourself”
Example for a complaint: “You didn’t pick up your clothes after yourself again”.
Antidote: Instead of saying your partner is the problem, talk about what the problem is for you. For example, you can say, “When you don’t pick up your clothes after yourself, I feel overwhelmed. I need you to help me more in keeping the house clean”.
2.Defensiveness: When one partner engages in criticism, it is often met with defensiveness from the other partner. As Gottman says, “Criticism and defensiveness like to dance with each other”. The defensive partner refuses to acknowledge what their partner has just said. They pay too much attention to what their partner has said about them and miss the content of a conversation. Therefore, the defensive partner appears to not be listening.
The defensive partner takes an inappropriate amount of responsibility. There are two ways to do that: you can either take no responsibility or take all the responsibility.
Example for “no responsibility” defensiveness: “I am not lazy, you are lazy”
Example for “all the responsibility” defensiveness: “You’re right. It’s all my fault, I am the worst. I don’t know why you married me”.
Both patterns are equally destructive in your communication with your partner.
Antidote: Try taking an appropriate amount of responsibility on your part of the problem. For example, you can say, “I can see how my behavior contributed to the problem. Thank you for helping me to understand. I’ll be more careful” as the appropriate amount of responsibility.
3.Contempt: Contempt is assumed to be the most toxic communication style. It sounds like “I hate you”, but it implies that “I am better than you”. Nonverbal cues such as eye rolling is also part of contempt. Mocking or looking down on your partner is the most common forms.
Example for contempt: “What kind of man are you? All you had to do was to pick up your clothes and you even couldn’t do that”.
Antidote: Look up to your partner. Celebrate, honor, compliment your partner for who they are. Also, you can talk about your unmet needs and feelings rather than sarcasm or belittling. For example, you can say, “You are very good at helping me. I like when you help me with chores. It makes me so happy and I feel that I create more time for us when you help me”.
4.Stonewalling: Stonewalling looks like verbally shutting yourself down or refusing to communicate or address the issue even though you are physically present. You may engage in stonewalling to avoid from escalating the conversation or you may be feeling overwhelmed, or not ready to address the issue your partner is bringing up.
Silence is powerful and often when one partner engages in stonewalling, this situation aggravates the other partner even more. The recipient of stonewalling may engage in aggressive behaviors such as throwing an object in order to get a reaction from their partners. So, if you engage in stonewalling to not escalate the situation, you may get the opposite result.
Antidote: Slow your heart rate rather than engaging in silent treatment. You need to calm yourself down and respectfully let your partner know verbally that you need to take a break. The break should be at least 20 minutes and not more than 24 hours. For example, you can say, “I feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to tell you. I need 30 minutes to calm myself down, and I’ll think about what you’ve just said. Can we take a break?”.
During this break, the partners should respect each other, and they shouldn’t engage in conversation. Texting or phone calls shouldn’t be done either. If necessary, partners can have this break in separate locations such as in different rooms of the house.
If you and your partner often engage in any of these communication habits, please schedule a couples therapy session.