Today I am talking about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and what in the world this has to do with marriage.
This concept was introduced by Dr. John Gottman who has written books about how these certain communication styles, that he has named The Four Horsemen, if allowed to run rampant in a relationship, are lethal. They usually enter a relationship in a certain order, and if allowed to stay there, that marriage or relationship will most likely fail.
I'm hoping this information will help you develop an awareness of these signs so you can get help to fight them off if you see them.
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Hi moms! Thank you for joining me today.
Many of the mothers that come to me for coaching are looking for help, support, tools, and insights into how to “fix” their relationship with their significant other. I’ve even had some invite their spouse or partner to come on the call with us. This isn’t always necessary, but when I’ve done it, it gives me more insight into the relationship.
I love this type of coaching and I love seeing the change that can happen within my clients when they are being truly listened to, and validated, and having their thoughts and feelings reflected back to them. Along with the insights and tools I am able to help them with; they can achieve the life and relationship that will make them happier and more fulfilled.
I’ve always been drawn to helping people with their relationships. I am a child of divorce, I went through my own divorce about 6 years ago with my first husband, and now I am remarried to the love of my life. So I’ve been a lot when it comes to relationships, and I understand a lot.
I think my fascination with relationships, and where and why the breakdown happens, is because of my own first marriage. When I was going through, what I thought was just marriage being difficult because that’s what everyone always says—“marriage is difficult”--I read everything I could get my hands on. I so wanted to try to fix things. I dragged him to marriage counseling, multiple times, and I just learned so so much. I loved reading books that I felt would really help us. I tried to change; I tried to change him; I tried to be better; I tried all I knew to try. But in the end, our relationship just couldn’t be saved.
On this journey of learning everything I could about relationships, I studied the work of Dr. John Gottman. His theory of the The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse really interested me. I guess this term is based on Christian mythology of figures that mainly appeared in the book of Revelations but also in the Old Testament too. They represent the punishments of God and the end of times. I don’t know too much about this, because I first learned this term to be about marriage. I was actually surprised to learn later that it was biblical.
So as I learned it, therapist and author John Gottman taught that these Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse represent certain communication styles that if allowed to run rampant in a relationship, are lethal. They usually clip clop into a relationship in a certain order, (usually in an order but not always), and if allowed to stay there, that marriage or relationship will most likely fail. I wanted to be very aware of these and understand ways to fight them off if I saw any of the signs of them.
Now these 4 Horsemen that we are going to talk about mainly have to do with communication styles and not some of the other significant problems that can happen to cause a relationship to fail.
Anyway, I’ve been wanting to do an episode about our relationship with our significant others but I just haven’t known where to begin. There’s so much to talk about. And so much of it is so sensitive and personal that it is difficult to speak to such a large audience in general terms. But the thought that I needed to share about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse has kept coming back to me. And I do find myself, a lot of times, sharing this information with my clients, especially giving them tools to combat these things when they start to show up. So I was hoping today, this would help you or someone you know, who is perhaps unhappy in their relationship, to learn about and be aware of the 4 Horsemen because if these have entered your relationship, this awareness you will gain today is a necessary first step to eliminating them and replacing them with healthy, productive communication patterns.
So let’s get into it…
Dr. Gottman says that they usually enter a relationship in order. Starting with the first Horseman which is criticism. You will always have some complaints about the person you live with; that’s totally normal. But there is a huge difference between voicing a complaint or critique, and an actual criticism of your partner. A complaint focuses on a specific behavior or event: “I’m really annoyed that you didn’t do the dishes last night. You said you would. Could you do them now?” This is a complaint. A complaint has 3 parts: how you feel, it’s about a specific situation, and what you need or want to kind of fix the situation.
But criticism is an attack on your partner at the core of their character or personality. “Why are you so forgetful? I hate how you always conveniently forget to do the dishes when it’s your turn. You just don’t ever follow through with what you say you’re going to do.” In other words, you are pretty much dismantling their whole being when you criticize.
This is such a good reminder to all of us, including me, not only with my spouse but also in my parenting to keep my complaints stated as I said before with the 3 parts: your feeling, focusing on a specific event, and then suggesting some sort of a solution. We must stay away from words like “you always” or “you never.” And even the nicest stated complaint can turn into a criticism the minute you make it sound like something is wrong with the person. Like, even saying at the end of your statement “What is wrong with you?” Yeah, that right there will turn it straight into criticism.
If you find that you and your partner are critical of each other, don’t assume your relationship is doomed to fail. That’s not what I’m saying. It’s just that being aware of how we talk to our partner, that there is a constructive way and a destructive way, is very important. The problem with criticism is that, when it becomes a consistent habit and we aren’t checking ourselves and the words we’re using, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen to follow. And it makes the partner fell rejected and hurt and worthless. And if it continues, it will escalate to the point that that first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity, which then leads to the next horseman which is contempt.
Contempt stems from a sense of superiority over our partner. It is a form of disrespect. When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean—we treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names, and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or mumbling, and making contemptuous noises under our breath. And it doesn’t even mean that we have to exhibit all of these things for us to show contempt, even one or two of these behaviors are enough to show our partner that we are basically disgusted with them. The victim of this contemptuous behavior is made to feel even more despised and more worthless than when they were being criticized. Contempt brings the meanness to a whole new level.
It goes far beyond criticism. While criticism attacks your partner’s character, contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over them. Like saying something like, “Don’t even complain to me about your day! I’ve been with the kids all day, running around taking care of everybody and everything, and all you do when you come home from work is sit on the couch all day and watch TV. How selfish and lazy can you get?”
Even if you have said things like this, or if your spouse has put you down in this way, where he is demeaning you and seeming to feel superior over you, even if we are thinking these mean things in our minds, contempt has entered the relationship and it really must be brought to light and driven out of the relationship for good.
It’s interesting because not only will this be a very unhappy relationship, to live feeling this way about your partner or have your partner feel this way about you, but research even shows that couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, flus, other sicknesses) than other people who are in happy relationships. Contempt actually causes weakened immune systems!
Contempt arises when you have differences that have not been resolved. Resentment sets in, and then those long-simmering negative thoughts can turn into contempt.
Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. And if you want your relationship to survive, it must be eliminated.
In an upcoming episode, we will talk about the Cure for Contempt. But definitely don’t wait for that. If you see this in your relationship, whether from you or your partner, get the professional help you need now, before any more horsemen gallop into your life.
The third horseman is defensiveness, and it is typically a response to criticism. We’ve all been defensive, and this horseman is very common when a relationship is not doing well and very much at risk. When we feel unjustly accused, we fish for excuses and play the innocent victim so that our partner will back off.
I had an acquaintance who would complain about her husband a lot whenever we got together with other moms in a social setting. She said all her husband did was make excuses. And it made her so upset. She said he could never just admit he was wrong; he just always had an excuse for everything. So all of his excuses just made his wife feel like he didn’t take her concerns seriously, and the fact that he wouldn’t take responsibility for his mistakes would just drive them further apart. It was interesting to look at it from an outside perspective because, knowing the 4 Horsemen, I saw that his defensiveness, and his need to always come up with an excuse, was his habitual reaction to the criticism that she was consistently heaping upon him. I never got in the middle of it, I don’t usually offer unsolicited advice; I don’t go around coaching those who don’t want to be coached. But I could see clearly how the 4 Horsemen were entering their marriage. And I wasn’t on anyone side or blaming either of them. I just knew that they needed help, or they were not going to last.
It’s so much easier to see from an objective point of view but often we are blind to it in our own relationship. I encourage all of us to take a good hard look at our own relationship and see if any of these unwanted Horsemen have made their way into our marriage, or even tried to get through the door, so that we can begin to make some changes to combat them.
So just to give a quick example of defensiveness… maybe your partner asks you if you called the painter, and when you realize you forgot and didn’t do it, if you say something like, “I was so busy today. You should have never put that on me in the first place. That’s not my job. Why don’t you just go do it?” That’s being defensive. That’s pointing the finger back at him. It makes sense. We are busy and overwhelmed. I’m not saying anyone is a bad spouse for being defensive sometimes. We all do it. But it’s just the awareness of it that were going for here.A non-defensive response to that example might be something like: “Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. That’s my fault. Let me call them right now.”
It is great when we can express acceptance of responsibility, admission of fault, and understanding of our partner’s perspective. But if you are already dealing with criticism and contempt in your marriage, having a humble heart to not make excuses and become defensive is nearly impossible.
Do you see how one Horseman snowballs into another Horseman? And these three don’t always gallop into a relationship in strict order. They function a lot like a relay, handing the baton off to each other over and over again if the couple can’t put a stop to it.
The fourth and final horseman is stonewalling, which is usually a response to contempt. In relationships where criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, eventually one partner tunes out.
Stonewalling looks like the listener withdrawing from the interaction, shutting down, and simply no longer responding to their partner. Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall just start tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in distracting behaviors, like TV, video games, or anything else to avoid a fight. But while they are busy avoiding a fight, they are also avoiding their marriage.
The stonewaller might sit like an impassive stone wall and look away or down without eye contact or even speaking a word of acknowledgement. It’s as though he couldn’t care less about what you’re saying, if he even hears you at all.
It’s the final horseman, not just because it was probably the other three that have made it appear, but because it usually arrives later in the relationship; much later than the other three. It takes time for the negativity of a relationship to lead to stonewalling. But when it does arrive, it frequently becomes a bad habit. And unfortunately, stonewalling isn’t easy to stop. And when we stonewall, we may not even be in a psychological state where we can discuss things rationally. And I actually don’t know why I keep saying we because most women don’t end up stonewalling. The majority of this part of it is from men. But you need to be aware of it in case it is happening to you.
If it is, please get help.
Being able to identify if the Four Horsemen are showing up in the way you and your partner communicate and deal with conflict, is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away those destructive communication and conflict patterns, you must replace them with healthy, productive ones.
There are ways to counteract these behaviors, but depending on how deeply your relationship has already been affected by them, professional help is probably your best bet. If you’re not sure exactly what to do first, I would love to be your first point of contact so we can develop a plan to help your relationship move forward in a healthier and much happier way.
Too often, a marriage dies because neither spouse recognizes its value until it’s too late. Too often it’s taken for granted rather than given the nurturing and respect it deserves and desperately needs. Some people may think that getting divorced or staying in an unhappy marriage is no big deal anymore, that it’s just a part of life. But now there is so much evidence documenting just how harmful both divorce and an unhappy relationship can be for all involved.
Society has deceived us into believing that if we are unhappy in a relationship that is a sign that we need to get out of it. This is just not true. A relationship takes time, effort, energy, patience, and lots of work in order for it to succeed. Our culture, our education system, and the way we were raised don’t prepare us for the fact that even good relationships take effort. A lot of effort. In general, most of us weren’t really taught those skills.
So yes, divorce ends the relationship but it doesn’t necessarily resolve any of our issues. This is why the divorce rate for 2nd and 3rd marriages is so high. Most often a person will leave a relationship, hop into another one, and repeat the same behaviors and cycles over and over again. It is easier to bounce from one relationship to another than to stick it out, put in the work, and make your current relationship last.
If you have lost that friendship that you once knew with your spouse, and maybe even feel like that mutual respect and love you thought you once had is gone forever, don’t despair. Couples who put in the time and effort and really try to work on their relationship to see if it’s possible to stay together end up with either a newfound happiness that they didn’t even know was possible, or they decide it’s really time to call it quits. But at least then, if they do decide to end the relationship, they can move forward knowing they’ve done everything possible to earn their way out.
There is something psychologically freeing to end a marriage knowing that you did everything in your power to save it before you walked away. Too many times, people have given up too soon, and they spend years and years asking themselves “What if?” and “Did I do enough?” Most who haven’t given it their all before giving up, begin to regret their decision at some point. Sometimes once they have had some time and space to put the negative aspects of the past relationship behind them, they begin to miss the good times and regret what has happened and question everything. Haunted by having left someone they perhaps truly loved, they wonder if they should have tried harder to make that relationship work.
Giving a relationship a proper try is about working towards a genuine understanding of the other person and it is about practicing a ton of forgiveness--every day--and also true self-reflection so we are able to admit when we’re wrong and take responsibility for our own actions in the relationship. It means focusing on the positive and being open to who they are, not overly focusing on negativity and conflict.
What you focus on grows.
I hope this will help you in your relationship and I hope you will share this with someone you know who might need the help, too. And please reach out if you need a relationship coach. My website is www.the-mommywhisperer.com. It’s super easy to click on my calendar and sign up for a time.
And remember: “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.”
Thank you so much for being here today and I’ll talk to you next week!