The Four Horsemen

Photo of destruction and pollution, a dried landscape, broken fence, example of the results of the four horsemen

Relationship researcher John Gottman can identify relationships that will end by the presence of what he calls “The Four Horsemen.” The Four Horsemen of Christian Apocalyptic legend brought on the end of the world, and these four horsemen will bring on the end of your relationship, for sure.

The Four Horsemen are:

  • Criticism – this is telling a partner that there is something wrong with them, or blaming them.
  • Contempt – showing contempt via sarcasm or ridicule.
  • Defensiveness – usually a response to criticism that deflects from the issue, reversing blame.
  • Stonewalling – refusal to engage about a specific topic, or at all.

We have all engaged in these behaviors at one time or another, but what’s important is that the ratio of positive, loving interactions with our partner must outweigh negative interactions with our partner in these categories by 5:1. Yes, you heard me correctly. For every criticism, or defensive response, we must have 5 loving, positive interactions in order for our relationship to survive.

This is because of our brain’s inherent negative bias. We are wired to pay about five times more attention to the negative than the positive. It helped us survive as we were evolving, but it isn’t of a lot of help in our modern society.

How to really avoid these Four Horsemen

In fact, none of these behaviors are necessarily inevitable in a relationship. The single most important factor in avoiding these behaviors altogether is to take responsibility for our own actions and feelings. Our emotions are ours, even if triggered by the actions of our partner.

When we take responsibility for our own feelings, we can see what part of the equation is something possibly problematic our partner did, and what is the uncomfortable feelings triggered by that action. Often, we’ll see that our partner actually didn’t do anything wrong at all – but that we’ve blamed them for a negative feeling they triggered.

And if we can take responsibility for our own actions, and admit that we are human, and will make mistakes, then we don’t need to be defensive, and don’t need to stonewall. And it’s much easier for both partners to have a conversation about the core issue when both can take responsibility for their own feelings and actions.

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