Author: Veronica Lichtenstein, LMHC
Mar 7, 2023
What if I told you that that there are ways to predict the success of your relationship? These predictors are measured in the way you fight, according to John Gottman, a world-renowned relationship researcher who has studied the dynamics of relationships for over four decades. There are correct ways in which conflict can bring a sense of connection, peace, and unity to a relationship OR it can act as a corrosive.
Gottman has identified what he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” in relationships. These are four negative communication patterns that can predict the end of a relationship. The Four Horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. His research has shown that small things often play a significant role in the success or failure of a relationship.
Criticism: Criticism refers to attacking your partner’s character or personality rather than addressing a specific behavior. For example, saying “You’re always so lazy” is a criticism, whereas saying “I need your help with the dishes” is a specific behavior that can be addressed
Contempt: Contempt is an attitude of superiority and disrespect towards your partner. This can manifest as eye-rolling, sarcasm, name-calling, or other forms of verbal or nonverbal hostility. Contempt is a significant predictor of divorce or relationship dissolution.
Defensiveness: Defensiveness occurs when a person responds to a perceived attack by making excuses or denying responsibility. This can escalate a conflict and prevent effective communication and problem-solving
Stonewalling: Stonewalling occurs when a person shuts down and withdraws from the conversation or interaction. This can happen when a person feels overwhelmed or flooded by emotions and can be especially damaging to relationships because it prevents conflict resolution.
Gottman’s research has shown that the presence of the Four Horsemen in a relationship can be a predictor of future relationship problems, including divorce. However, by recognizing and addressing these negative communication patterns, couples can learn to communicate more effectively and build a stronger, healthier relationship.
Communication is a complex process, and it is not always easy to maintain effective communication in the midst of conflict or emotional distress. All couples may sometimes communicate in ways that resemble one or more of the Four Horsemen. The key to maintaining a healthy relationship is not necessarily avoiding the Four Horsemen altogether but rather learning how to recognize and manage them when they do arise. The appearance of conflict in a relationship is not the predictor of success or failure but rather how it is managed.
For example, couples can learn to address specific behaviors rather than attacking each other’s character (criticism), avoid name-calling or contemptuous language (contempt), take responsibility for their actions and avoid becoming defensive (defensiveness), and take a break or time-out when they are feeling overwhelmed (stonewalling). Gottman outlines the antidotes to these corrosives.
By being aware of these communication patterns and working to avoid them when possible, couples can improve their ability to communicate effectively and maintain a strong, healthy relationship. It is essential to understand that communication is not always perfect, but it is important to be intentional about how we communicate and work to minimize the impact of negative communication patterns on our relationships. How we address conflict and how we respond to the projections of others can determine how successful we are in maintaining the structural integrity of the relationship ecosystem.