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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: A Lesson in Unhealthy Communication Styles

Kyle Lawell, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

It’s safe to say that nearly all couples have arguments at some point in their relationship. We may argue about whose in-laws we’re going to see for the holidays, who took out the garbage last week, or what color we should paint the kitchen. In the best-case scenario, these arguments are resolved in an adaptive, healthy, and respectful manner between the two partners. Other times, however, these arguments are filled with vitriol in what Gottman and Silver (1999) call the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, described in their book, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.” This term may sound catastrophic and somewhat exaggerative, but it does grasp the severity that these four negative communication styles can have on the quality of a relationship or marriage. By acknowledging times where we engage in these four communication styles in our relationships, we can begin the process of stopping ourselves and replacing these old habits with more effective and positive ways of communicating with our partners.

  • Criticism: it is normal and okay for people within a relationship to have complaints. Maybe we don’t like the way our partner leaves the shower curtain open (a personal pet peeve of mine), or we want our partner to be more physically intimate with us. These are valid and understandable complaints to bring awareness to. The problem, however, lies in how we communicate these concerns. A complaint contains three specific parts: (1) how we feel, (2) about a situation/event, and (3) how it can be addressed. For example, I might say, “I’m frustrated when the shower curtain is left open and I would really appreciate it if you could close it when you’re done.” This type of communication expresses a desire from our partner without attacking their character or personality. Criticism, on the other hand, generalizes a partner’s behavior and internalizes that behavior as a character flaw of that individual. A complaint might sound like, “You always leave the shower curtain open because you’re so lazy.” This type of communication is bound to be met with hostility and evasiveness from our partner, creating an environment not meant for healthy and productive communication.
  • Contempt: this horseman involves a sense of superiority over our partner and with it shows a lack of respect as well. When we engage in an argument with our partners, contempt can be seen through sarcasm, name-calling, cynicism, eye-rolling, and mockery. Typically, contempt results from negative feelings we have toward our partner that are not being appropriately expressed. Research also indicates that couples who are more contemptuous of each other are also more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses (i.e. colds, flu, etc.) than other people.
  • Defensiveness: it isn’t surprising that when couples are consistently incorporating contempt and criticism into their conversations with one another that they are bound to become defensive. Defensiveness shows up when we begin to create excuses for the complaint or criticism that our partner is expressing. Defensiveness creates barriers to perspective-taking and inevitably escalates an argument instead of resolving one. Acknowledging our partner’s concerns and taking the time to understand the role we play in those concerns is a first, yet often difficult step toward breaking down that defensiveness.
  • Stonewalling: discussions filled with contempt, criticism, and defensiveness are incredibly likely to result in our last horsemen of negative communication, stonewalling. This communication pattern involves completely disengaging from the conversation being made by a partner. This lack of responsiveness can be seen when somebody chooses to watch TV instead of engaging with their partner, who is expressing a concern. There is a significant or absolute lack of cues (i.e. eye contact, head nodding, etc.) from the partner showing they are paying attention and instead they may look away or continue doing whatever they were doing before.

These communication habits can lead to marital stress if not appropriate addressed. While it can be difficult to recognize when we are engaging in these behaviors with our partner, it can be a great first step toward changing these behaviors. If you find that your relationship uses these communication styles often and want to work on engaging with your partners more respectfully and effectively, consider contacting Symmetry Counseling where one of our licensed mental health clinicians can you guide you toward a healthier way of interacting with your partner.

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