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July 13, 2023
John and Julie Gottman are some of the most well known and influential leaders in the marriage and couples therapy world. They have founded the Gottman Institute which trains professionals and educates all of us. They have written many books and conducted vast research on what hurts and helps your relationship. Through research, the Gottman’s have discovered what they coined as “The Four Horsemen” and their antidotes. The four horsemen are the four most common conflict points in arguments and disagreements which are hurting your relationship. In fact, these four horsemen are the predictors of divorce and break-ups. Let’s learn what they are, how they are showing up in your relationship, and what the antidotes are.
The four horsemen are:
Criticism is what has the power to rob your relationship of its peace. It is the least destructive of the four, but hurtful nonetheless. Criticism is different from expressing your needs and expectations. Criticism often is given in absolutes in expressions such as “You always…” or “You never...” Criticism attacks the individual's character. It aims to shift fault to your partner and deny your role in the conflict.
Contempt is the act of mocking and using hostile humor. Often contempt is cutting and belittling in nature. Contempt includes: name calling, eye rolling, scoffing, and making faces. Contempt stems from a lack of respect for the other partner. Contempt exposes your partner and makes them feel foolish for their vulnerabilities. Contempt is a sign of competition in your relationship as a result of undermining correction. Contempt is known as the most destructive of the four horsemen.
People become defensive when they respond emotionally before listening to what the other person actually has to say. Defensiveness often turns the table onto the other person. The individual tries to make the other “the problem.” Defensiveness denies their role in the conflict and assumes the role of the victim in order to avoid responsibility. At its core, defensiveness is a form of blaming your partner. This escalates conflicts to an extreme. Defensiveness is often a learned behavior or trauma response.
Stone-walling is exactly what it sounds like. It is the act of emotionally shutting down and withdrawing. In stone-walling, the individual withdraws from the disagreement due to feeling flooded and overwhelmed. The distress level becomes so high that the individual checks out and becomes unresponsive.
Below are a list of antidotes to each of the four horsemen:
Antidote for Criticism: The gentle start up
The gentle start up prevents the other partner from feeling attacked. The gentle start up avoids words which insinuate blame. It avoids using “you...” statements. The gentle start up honors your needs without blaming your partner. It expresses openness and a sense of resolution and care. The key here is to not attack their character but to express yourself and felt emotions in a healthy manner.
Criticism: You never help me with the household chores. I always do it by myself.
The Gentle Start Up: I have been feeling really overwhelmed with the housework. I would like to talk about how we can better divide responsibilities and tackle this challenge together. Can we make a game plan to try this?
Antidote for Contempt: Build a culture of appreciation
Since contempt stems from a place of disrespect and minimizing your partner, it is critical that the culture in your relationship changes. You build a culture of appreciation by noticing what they do well. Take note of their strengths, their efforts, and ways they serve you and the relationship. The goal of your culture change is to have your relationship have a positive override compared to a negative and tension based relationship. Ideally you have more positive interactions than negative interactions, a minimum of a 3:1 ratio. You want to build a bank of appreciation. Not only do you want to notice the good but you want to express the good to your partner.
Contempt: Ugh, you never wash the car well enough. I am always seeing stains left over.
Build a Culture of Appreciation: Hey, thank you so much for filling up the car yesterday! It really helped me arrive on time to work today because I didn’t have to fill it up. Thank you for thinking of me.
Antidote for Defensiveness: Take responsibility
This one is pretty straight forward. It goes back to the classic saying of “It takes two to tango.” Barring abuse, any situation of conflict involves both parties being somewhat at fault. To beat defensiveness, you must be open minded and humble. Be okay with taking ownership of your role, even if it is minimal. This expresses respect and willingness to compromise in your relationship.
Defensiveness: I had to get to work on time! You don’t understand how hard I am working!
Take Responsibility: Hey, I am sorry that I didn’t clean the dishes. I should’ve woken up earlier so that I could wash them before leaving for work. I will be better next time.
Antidote for Stone-walling: Self-soothing
There are a plethora of self soothing techniques ranging from breathwork to exercise. When someone is in the act of stone-walling their nervous system is in overdrive and it is important to give your body the space to decompress and return to a regulated state. It is important to give yourself or your partner the space to do this. Allow the disagreement to pause and resume at a later moment.
Stone-Walling: Individual gets worked up* - Whatever! You’re right. I’m done with this argument!
Self-Soothing: I am getting worked up and I don’t want this to turn into an argument. Can we take a 10 minute break and return to this conversation in a little bit?
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