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The Four Horsemen

Let’s talk about horses. But this is no discourse on equestrian science, but about how we relate and communicate. In a sense, it’s about how we “bounce off each other”. The “Four Horsemen” in this sense are not to be confused with the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, but are the four indicators that can predict a looming divorce, according to John Gottman, Ph.D., a nationally-respected leader in marriage research and counseling, and author of “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert”. Gottman’s four horsemen are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Here, we will break each of these pillars down into everyday examples that most of us can quickly recognize.

CRITICISM - - Attacking partner’s personality or character, usually with intent to make you right and them wrong. A personal attack. Blame. Looks for fault. Much like shame, it attacks the whole person and not merely the behavior. Generalizes, such as “always”, “never”, “why are you so….” See where you can point out how a complaint and a criticism are different. A complaint is focused, uses an I-message, and is specific without generalizing or attacking the person.

COMPLAINT: “Sweetheart, I’m confused. I think you’d mentioned you would load the dishwasher after dinner tonight while I took a hot bath. Did you possibly forget? Can you please load the dishwasher before you go to bed? Thanks, babe.” (Hear the specific focus on behavior and not on blame? Hear the I-message? Hear the very specific request and not pigeon-holing or backing into a corner, such as not forcing to do it this minute, but giving benefit of the doubt and allowing it sometime before bedtime? Hear the giving the benefit of the doubt, such as spouse may have honestly forgotten? Hear the respect, by saying words such as please, thanks? Even exchanging a phrase such as “I am a little confused” for “You promised and you lied!” can greatly reduce the volatility of a simple conversation. Hear the “soft startup” in the word “sweetheart” at the start of the conversation? Now, let’s look at a criticism instead.

CRITICISM: “Oh, yeah…here we go again! You promised and you lied! Why do you always ignore me when I ask you to do the simplest thing like load the dishwasher? You never listen! I told you twice and you just refuse to help around the house! You idiot! You are so lazy!” (Hear the you-messages, the generalizing, the insult, blame, shaming, the not focusing on the behavior but attacking the person as well? Which one would you rather want to hear?)

CONTEMPT - - Examples are name-calling, insults, hostility, disgust, rejection, sneering, body language, such as eye-rolling, smirking, recoil. Biting sarcasm, mockery. Greatly generalizes and gives a blanket assumption. “He didn’t load the dishwasher again, the jerk. Oh, do not even get me started! For years I’ve been just trying to ask him to do things and all these years he’s treated me like crap. You’d think any loving husband would offer, but noooooo, not him. He’ll help his friends out but not me! He’s just an idiot. I don’t want him to even touch me; he disgusts me. He promised last week that he’d watch the kids while I went to a friend’s baby shower and, just like always, he SAYS he ‘forgot’ that, too. Yeah, right! If he doesn’t love me I just wish he’d tell me. I really got the short end of the stick on this marriage! I’m just sick of it.” So is she mad about the dishwasher, or about years’ worth of disappointments and this just touched it off, all over again? Where does the other spouse even begin to heal this, because this type of communication brought in years’ worth of disappointments and stored anger and was unfocused. It threw out the baby with the bath water and potentially destroyed any positive regard and good success the couple has had… in one fell swoop. One paragraph can destroy everything.

It’s very hard to resolve problems when a spouse feels you’re disgusted with them or when you feel disgusted with your spouse. Criticism has a recursive (mutual, back and forth) effect, because it makes the other spouse defensive, on guard, ready for a fight. They may withdraw, resent, build a case right back. See the “hamster wheel”?

Closely related to “criticism” is belligerence, which can be dangerous and create anger and hostility in the partner. Criticism can create a “double-bind” for the spouse (and the one who is critical) … how does one or the other get off the negative hamster wheel without either A) Giving up, B) Giving in and possibly “losing face” or “submitting”? There is a definite pattern of one-upmanship here, destruction, and case-building. There is no spirit of cooperation, mutual respect, forgiveness, or grace. It naturally makes the other spouse want to retaliate, not cooperate. Then….the more one spouse retaliates, the more the other gets even more defensive and becomes more critical. The more they become critical, the more the other retaliates. See the impossible “hamster wheel” conundrum?

DEFENSIVENESS - - When one attacks the spouse, the other spouse defends. If we feel vulnerable or unsafe, whether physically or emotionally, we naturally go into “defense” posture. Animals do it and so do humans. When the situation is volatile or attacking and feels unsafe emotionally or physically, we cannot allow ourselves to feel vulnerable, so we defend instead. Defensiveness also blames the spouse, not takes the blame (“Hey! I had a really bad day today! Why don’t you just let me relax a little while! You always start in on me as soon as I get home! I was going to load the dishwasher but you are so rude about it now I don’t want to at all!”). It also is a way of refusing to accept any accountability for the problem. Taking responsibility, calmly “owning” the responsibility, is a good way of defusing a rapidly-escalating situation (“You’re right, honey, I did forget to load the dishwasher again. I was really tired when I got home. Thanks for not nagging me about it. I’ll load it tonight before I go to bed.”) Hear the courtesy and respect? Hear the ownership? Hear the “closing of the loop” and the promise to get the task at hand done by a certain time? Hear the affection and hear the positive affirmation and giving the spouse credit for not being negative or insulting?

“Anything rewarded is repeated”. Most of us respond better to praise than to criticism. Just a few carefully-placed words of affirmation, example below, can make all the difference. Here are two examples to compare:

BAD EXAMPLE: “No, I’m not going to be nice to you! You didn’t load the dishwasher once again when you promised!” Hear the withholding of love and respect (along with contempt, defensiveness, criticism, conditional loving)?

GOOD EXAMPLE: “Honey, I know we get so busy sometimes and we both forget to load that silly dishwasher, but I just want you to know that I thought of you today while I was at work, and it made me smile when I thought of all the times you are so good about helping me around the house. It makes me feel appreciated when you help me do those things, so thank you, honey.” Hear the respect? Hear the message of “we’re on the same team and it’s the task of loading the dishwasher that’s no fun, not us”? Who doesn’t want to hear that?

Defensiveness also makes a tense situation worse, whether it’s between spouses or when an employee who makes a mistake defends themselves and gives excuses instead of simply accepting responsibility and repairing it. A spouse continually defending themselves will make the blaming, angry spouse only angrier and feel more hopeless and not listened to. (“You’re not owning it! You’re just giving excuses! Don’t blame me because you didn’t load the dishwasher!”)

STONEWALLING - - Feeling flooded, overwhelmed, shutting down, rejecting or ignoring the other person, pulling away, in what may appear to be an indifferent, uninterested or bored, pouting demeanor. The “silent treatment” may be used. Muttering, changing the subject, refusal to talk about the problem, getting up and leaving the room, etc. May convey disapproval, distance, withdrawal. All of this may only incite the upset spouse all the more and make them feel even more frustrated, unheard, insecure, ignored, put down, their needs and feelings discounted which may make them attack, blame, even more. Often people begin to “stonewall” as a defense against becoming overwhelmed or flooded. See the “hamster wheel” pattern beginning to start all over again? (“Why won’t you talk? You always shut me out and sit there silent! Don’t you even care?! Where do you think you’re going?!”)

Let’s talk a bit about how one visible emotion (like anger) is sometimes used in place of a deeper, hidden emotion. Visualize an iceberg in the ocean….

PRIMARY V. SECONDARY EMOTIONS - - What you see above the water line is often only about 10% of what is unseen, and below the water line. Let’s use that visualization to note the difference between “primary” emotions, and “secondary” emotions. What you often “see” above the surface are the secondary emotions. What is below the surface and unseen, but very real, are the primary emotions….

PRIMARY (below the surface, often unseen or unrecognized) - - - Emotions such as hurt, fear, rejection, sadness

SECONDARY (above the surface, often seen) - - Emotions such as anger, sarcasm

We often show (secondary, seen) anger, when we are actually hurt (primary, and unseen). Rather than continue commenting on the anger, let’s look below the surface to the hurt or fear. Once we do that, we help that person learn to acknowledge and recognize and respect and care for the lower, deeper, unseen primary hurt or fear. Basically, when human beings feel the person they are attached to is distancing or “rejecting” them, they may begin hot pursuit in order to restore the balance. Sometimes the person being pursued doesn’t like it and creates further distance. The more Bill pursues Jane, the more distant Jane may become. Therefore, Bill is confused and hurt. He feels rejected. He may begin pursuing Jane even more – which may lead to Jane feeling even more closed in and pressured, and she may create even more distance. See the hamster wheel pattern starting? We engage in these patterns throughout our lives and often don’t even recognize it. But once we begin to see a pattern, such as demonstrated here, we can begin to view it differently. Knowledge is power.

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