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Remedies to the Four Horsemen

Hannah Hopper, LPC, NCC

In my last blog I described what the Four Horsemen are, and how they can show up in romantic relationships. To recap, the Four Horsemen are unhealthy patterns that couples can fall into with communication, and once these patterns are identified they can be replaced with productive and respectful ways of responding. The name comes from the end times described in the New Testament where there are Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that bring death, conquest, war, and hunger. And according to research from the Gottman Institute, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling also can bring about the death of a relationship if left unchecked. But fortunately there are remedies to each of the Four Horsemen, and this blog will cover how to use them in your relationship. 

The Criticism Remedy 

Gently beginning a conversation with your partner without blaming is the remedy to criticism. A complaint talks about an issue that needs to be addressed, whereas a criticism is attacking the person’s character. One way to start reframing your comments is to begin with complaints with an “I” statement instead of starting with a “you” statement. Two other questions you can ask yourself are: What am I feeling? What am I needing? A complaint talks about how you feel, and then asks for what you are needing from your partner in the moment; this keeps the conversation from blaming and potentially leading to an argument. 

The Contempt Remedy

When we’re speaking to our partner with contempt, everything we say is shrouded in mockery, sarcasm, cynicism and belittlement. And it may not come as a surprise that contempt in a relationship is the greatest predictor of divorce. The remedy to contempt is having a relationship full of appreciation and respect. One way to do this is by practicing the Gottman motto of Small Things Often. This is described as “If you regularly express appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner, you’ll create a positive perspective in your relationship that acts as a buffer for negative feelings. The more positive you feel, the less likely that you’ll feel or express contempt!” 

The Defensiveness Remedy

Defensiveness comes up when we’re feeling threatened or attacked, and it’s a self-protective measure we take when we start to feel criticized. Defensiveness shifts the fault to the other person and portrays the person who’s feeling attacked as the victim. The remedy to defensiveness is to accept responsibility, or even a portion of the responsibility in the conflict. 

The Stonewalling Remedy

Stonewalling usually starts to take place in conflicts when your body gets so flooded with emotions that you’re unable to think clearly, and it seems like the best option is to shut down, disengage, and mentally leave the moment. Since it’s nearly impossible to think straight when you’re flooded with overwhelming emotions, the only way to stop stonewalling is to take a break and allow some time for your body to calm down. The antidote to stonewalling is psychological self-soothing and this looks like calling a timeout with your partner so that you can take time to be in separate rooms and focus on taking deep, slow breaths. Usually this can take about twenty minutes, but the key is to find a time that you and your partner will come together again to work through the argument so that this doesn’t become a habit for escaping conflicts. 

Being able to identify unhealthy patterns and establish new patterns is a key predictor to a successful relationship. Symmetry Counseling has several therapists that specialize in relationships and couples counseling and can provide you with the insight you’re looking for. If you’re ready to take that first step and schedule a session, you can browse our therapist bios to find someone that is the right fit for you. You can also contact Symmetry Counseling today by calling 312-578-9990 to get matched with one of our therapists. 


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