While communication problems are not the only cause of relationship distress, it is often one of the first unhealthy dynamics to be recognized by couples. It represents a large part of how we connect with each other. A therapist trained in the Gottman Method will help you identify communication problems and will teach you the antidotes for the toxicity created by them. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are communication patterns that represent major dysfunction in communication and that if left untreated can result in the demise of a relationship:
- Criticism – This feels like character assassination. It is not simply a complaint about a behavior, rather it is a highly charged criticism of the very character of a person. These can be passive-aggressive, or overtly aggressive.
- Defensiveness – An angry denial or a charged deflection of responsibility; even excuse making. The focus becomes on the person hearing the complaint/criticism rather than on the speaker that needs to be heard. Things like Criticism and Contempt (the next Horseman) are often responded to with defensiveness.
- Contempt – Often feels like an expression of disgust. You’ll also see things like mocking, toxic sarcasm and belittling. There are facial features that also give this one away (Imagine a teenager rolling their eyes and pulling their upper lip up as if they smelled something horrible).
- Stonewalling – Stonewalling is frequently associated with flooding, a physiological state where a person is so upset that they literally shut down emotionally and communicatively. They will just withdraw from the conversation, not make eye contact, and may specifically look down and to the left. When we check their vital signs, we see increased pulse rate, among other things.
I mentioned above that there are simple patterns that when present can reliably predict the downfall of a relationship. The Four Horsemen are those patterns. I’d like to help you before they become a pattern, but if you see that they are already set in place, please get in touch so we can get started. Learning how to recognize the horsemen and remedy their toxic effects on your relationship helps you learn to listen better, feel understood more often, and maintain a calm and respectful demeanor when dealing with charged topics and conflict.
The antidotes to the 4 Horsemen are an important part of our work. I want you to leave couples therapy with a skill set, a complete toolbox that has the skills you need to work through conflict without resorting to the horsemen . . . and when they do show up from time to time, I want you to have skills to neutralize them. We will discuss how to do this in detail and I will give you materials that will help you remember these skills and integrate them into your daily routines (this helps prevent the horsemen).