The metaphor comes from the Bible’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: conquest, war, hunger, and death – the elements attributed to the end of times. The point is that while all relationships have ups and downs, it’s the constant presence of the Four Horsemen that determines the relationship’s ultimate failure.
These four negative communication patterns are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Here is what they are and how to combat them.
Criticism involves making negative judgments about your spouse's character or personality. It goes beyond addressing a specific behavior and attacks the person's core. Criticism often starts with "you always" or "you never" statements, making it an accusatory attack instead of an impartial observation.
In the movie When Harry Met Sally, Sally (Meg Ryan) criticizes Harry's (Billy Crystal) views on relationships, accusing him of being overly pessimistic about the possibility of male-female friendships. This criticism attacks his general outlook on relationships rather than addressing the specific issue they're discussing.
At the beginning of the movie, most conversations between Sally and Harry revolve around each other’s views. Harry responds with indifference toward Sally’s views, and Sally responds with criticism toward his. She finds his remarks invalid and makes it clear even before he expands on them. In one scene, they’re discussing their views on death, and when Harry shares how he values preparing for death, Sally responds, “And you think that makes you a better person?” and later adds, “In the meantime, you are ruining your whole life waiting for it.” She devalues and dismisses what he is clearly expressing as valuable to him.
Harry reacts indifferently to her responses, but by the end of the movie, they’ve both grown in friendship and general understanding of each other, and therefore are able to have more constructive conversations. In the scene where they argue about a coffee table, Sally quickly realizes that Harry’s angry responses are because he recently ran into an ex. She doesn’t respond to what he is explicitly saying, but to the feelings he is showcasing. This is a bid for intimate connection because Sally could have criticized his cynical remarks; instead, she chose to not comment on the cynicism and got right into her friend’s pain.
Harry and Sally did not have a specific conversation about their communication problems, but they did constantly grow in friendship, and by doing so, they naturally became more charitable and less critical of each other. With time, they became better and better at expressing their frustrations without creating personal attacks.
To prevent criticism from ruining your relationship, try this: Instead of attacking your spouse's character, focus on specific behaviors or actions that are bothering you. Use "I" statements to express your feelings and needs without blaming or accusing. Add to this what Dr. Gottman calls a gentle or soft start-up. Use a calm tone of voice, and if needed, use the sandwich method: Say something nice, then your complaint or frustration, and then something nice again. For example, instead of saying, "You always ignore my feelings," try, "I really like it when we have deep conversations, but sometimes I feel hurt when I sense my feelings aren't considered. It’s not always, but it has happened, so I want to voice it." This statement is the start of a conversation about how the dynamic is affecting you. It’s proven to be a more effective way of communicating than accusing your spouse about how he makes you feel.
Contempt involves expressing a sense of superiority and disrespect toward a spouse. It includes sarcasm, name-calling, mockery, and belittling. Contempt implies a lack of regard for the other person's feelings and worth.
In The Proposal, Margaret (Sandra Bullock) frequently displays contempt toward her assistant Andrew (Ryan Reynolds). She often uses condescending language and belittles his contributions, expressing her perceived superiority. Intentionally or not, the constant belittlement hurts the mutual respect and appreciation between them. In this case, Margaret is Andrew’s boss, and she uses this dynamic of their relationship against him as she keeps pointing out her make-believe superiority over him. In most cases, contempt is rooted in feeling that we are absolutely right and our counterpart is not. The truth is that such a thing is never true, because we’re flawed human beings and relationships require mutual yielding in order to grow. Even if you absolutely cannot agree with your spouse’s point of view, expressing an understanding of why he feels that way or finds that important is a big step toward happier conversation.
By the end of the film, Margaret’s contempt has been reduced, and both parties can express themselves more openly. By the time they get actually engaged, Margaret responds to Andrew’s vulnerability by expressing her own feelings, instead of belittling his act of boldness.
In order to counteract contempt in your relationship, replace contemptuous remarks with expressions of appreciation and understanding. Make an effort to see your spouse's perspective and treat them with respect. Use humor in a playful, affectionate way rather than using sarcasm to belittle. Remember, empathy and kindness go a long way.
Defensiveness is a response to perceived criticism, where you try to protect yourself instead of listening to your spouse's concerns. It often involves making excuses, deflecting blame, or playing the victim.
In Hitch, the character Albert (Kevin James) displays defensiveness when his crush Allegra discovers that Hitch (Will Smith) is helping him woo her. Albert initially reacts defensively, feeling embarrassed about seeking dating advice and deflecting blame onto Hitch.
Toward the end of the movie, when Albert walks onto the boat and finds Hitch and Allegra hugging, he assumes the worst and accuses Hitch of using him to get to Allegra. As a way to protect his pride, Albert turns physically violent toward Hitch before realizing that Hitch was still loyal to him. Allegra clarifies the situation, and Albert lets Hitch go. The conversation on the boat was a long time coming, as Albert wasn’t being as honest with Allegra like he should have been all along. Once the truth comes to light, Allegra appreciates Albert for his efforts as she realizes how much he genuinely cares for her and how not everything was a seduction game.
The most efficient way to disarm someone who is feeling defensive is to take responsibility for your part in the situation instead of deflecting blame. Albert initially blames Hitch but eventually takes responsibility. Listen actively to your spouse's concerns without immediately trying to protect yourself. Avoid making excuses and try to understand their viewpoint. Use statements like "I see where you're coming from" to show that you're open to the conversation. You could even add, “I failed you when I did _____. I should have done _____.” Personal responsibility is attractive and fundamental for teamwork, so regardless of the specific situation, always aim to admit your part and act upon it, before you turn with anger toward someone else.
Some personality problems, such as severe narcissism and perfectionism, tend to be high on defensiveness because they have a fear of being wrong. In this specific situation, demonstrating that you do not love the person less, nor think less of them due to their flaw or mistake, is the first step out of defensiveness.
Stonewalling occurs when a person withdraws from a conversation or interaction, shutting down emotionally. They may avoid eye contact, give monosyllabic responses, or physically leave the situation. It prevents productive communication and resolution.
In The Break-Up, Gary (Vince Vaughn) stonewalls his girlfriend Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) during an argument. He disengages emotionally, plays video games, and gives one-word answers as she tries to express her frustrations. He is either ignoring or simply not understanding the evident underlying issues. This leaves Brooke frustrated and unable to communicate her feelings effectively, which feeds into her anger and feelings of abandonment. Eventually, she walks away, and he realizes his behavior is hurting her feelings. Brooke could’ve continued trying to get his attention, but doing so with a stonewaller isn’t productive. She ultimately reacted correctly by walking away and letting him come to her when he was ready (which, in this case, was immediately).
Men tend to be big stonewallers as they’re often the first to reach the point at which they decide to shut down instead of fight. They worry about saying the wrong thing and making things worse more than women do. When you sense yourself withdrawing, communicate to your spouse that you need a break but reassure them that you'll return to the conversation. If your spouse is withdrawing, ask them to set a time to revisit the conversation and then walk away. Pushing for a conversation or resolution will not help at this point. Practice self-soothing techniques to manage any overwhelming emotions so you can re-engage constructively.
Healthy Communication Habits
To different degrees, all relationships experience The Four Horsemen, so don’t feel as if all is lost when you experience one of the horsemen or even the whole stampede. Just be aware and actively counteract it. Understanding our own behavior and our spouse’s should ultimately help us grow in charity toward each other as it becomes clear that the way they experience feelings and emotions is not a personal attack on us.
In addition to these strategies, practicing healthy communication habits can help prevent The Four Horsemen from gaining a foothold in your relationship. Below are some specifics on the matter:
Active Listening: Give your spouse your full attention when they're speaking. Listen without interrupting and show that you understand their perspective. Repeat what they said in your own words just to be sure that you understood correctly. Even if you get it wrong, this gives your spouse an opportunity to clarify what they mean.
Empathy: Put yourself in your spouse's shoes and try to understand their emotions and point of view. This can help reduce the negative impact of criticism and contempt.
Use "I" Statements: Express your feelings and needs using "I" statements rather than making accusatory "you" statements. This can reduce defensiveness and promote understanding.
Take Breaks: If a conversation becomes too intense, agree with your spouse to take a break to cool off before returning to the discussion. It has been proven that once a conversation reaches a certain point of heat, nothing said will be properly received.
Seek Professional Help: If you find it challenging to address The Four Horsemen on your own, consider seeking the help of a couples therapist or marriage coach. They can provide guidance and tools to improve communication and strengthen your relationship. Some therapeutic methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help you and your spouse change the dynamics that may be hurting the relationship.
All of the best love stories require a committed effort to improve and continuously grow in love. The phrase “putting in effort” is somewhat tainted because we don’t want marriage to seem like a job, but this effort is more about intentionality, recognizing that you get out what you put in. Don’t feel discouraged by the bad days of your relationship, but take them as opportunities to recognize the horsemen that may be prowling around your relationship and address them head-on.
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