Dr. John Gottman, renowned couple’s therapist mentions what he calls “the Four Horseman of Apocalypse” as criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. He believes these qualities tear away at the good fabric of a relationship- whether it be spouse, sibling or parent.
This article will explore these four horsemen and antidotes to getting caught in their grip and offer a way of understanding the other so we can enjoy ourselves and each other more.
As aforementioned Dr. Gottman notes there are simple antidotes that can be very helpful. For instance, when criticism rears its ugly head, the antidote is called “a gentle start up”. This can be done by expressing your feelings using an “I” statement and express a positive need. Criticism bleeds over to contempt as it can start to make a statement about the person themselves instead of just focusing on an issue that you might have with them. Thus criticism/contempt is often expressed in a way that suggests a character flaw. It focuses on who a person is rather than what a person has done. A complaint, however, is different. It focuses on the action—and when it comes to relationships—a well-placed complaint is okay, and sometimes very necessary in a relationship. Here's the difference:
It’s OK to be disappointed when your partner forgets to vacuum before the Christmas party. However, it’s not OK to assume that they’re lazy and unreliable. In other words, when you complain, it’s important to do so without blame, otherwise, it becomes criticism. Stick to the facts, not characterizations.
Dr. Gottman advises couples to stick to a very simple formula: When _______ (event that happened), I felt _______ (actual feeling word) and I need _______ (response). So, for example, “When the living room wasn’t vacuumed, I felt disappointed and stressed, and I need to know that I can count on you.” All of those are facts which allow your partner to respond non-defensively. That’s impossible when you say, “Ugh. Why didn’t you vacuum the floor? You know how important it is to me to have a clean house. Why can’t I ever count on you?”
So, the antidote to another horsemen, contempt, which comes off as a character assassination, is by “building a culture of appreciation”. The antidote can be helpful by reminding yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and finding gratitude for positive actions. Validating this appreciation by communicating how touched you feel by the positive action will deepen your bond especially during these busy days of December holidays.
The third quality that can happen when stressed is “defensiveness” or victimizing yourself to ward off a perceived attack and thus reverse the blame. The antidote here is simply “Take Responsibility”. It is sometimes difficult but very helpful to lean into accepting your partner’s perspective and offer an apology for any wrongdoing. Otherwise it is easy to get into an endless cycle of “criticize and defend” and get lost into a useless game of “who is right”. And I often say to my clients “Do you want to be right or do you want to be in a relationship?”.
Lastly one of the horsemen is “stonewalling”. This is withdrawing to avoid conflict and convey disapproval, distance and separation. The antidote here is “physiological self-soothing”. It might be helpful to take a break and do something soothing, breathing exercises, walk, run, - allow yourself to deescalate for a while. Give your partner the message that you need a break but you do want to engage and am committed to working through the issue.
Here are some other tips to consider about yourself or your partner that can help us empathize and understand the psychological underpinnings to criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. For instance, perhaps your partner has been hurt repeatedly in relationships. Maybe things have ended with heartache and loneliness. Now that things are going well, your partner still fears what feels like that potential, tragic end. Putting down a partner or finding potentially fatal flaws is a way to protect from that potential heartache or loss. This self-defeating behavior feeds the illusion that one can control the future. It prevents a mate from getting too close and creating hurt all over again.
If you sense that a partner is picking apart your imperfections due to their own unresolved pain, reassure them that you are committed, willing, and safe. Learn more about their stories of past hurt and be extra sensitive to their need for reassurance and transparency. Explore their triggers– such as your tendency to be late, which may remind them of an experience of abandonment as a child or an unfaithful partner’s patterns – and do your best to overcome these minor challenges. Talk openly about your feelings around fear and tendency to self-sabotage through criticism.
Too often, one or both partners have been in past relationships in which they weren’t treated all that well. If you are a “nice guy” or “sweet girl” your significant other may simply not know how to show up in a relationship that isn’t built on drama or unmet needs. When so few flaws are evident to your love interest, they look hard to find them – and are vocal about these insignificant grievances.
Sometimes, this is a way to "normalize" the relationship to include some kind of conflict, by identifying some way their partner will not be able to meet their needs, because that dynamic is what a partner is accustomed to managing in companionship. Similarly, you may become their scapegoat for conflict. If it's not originating in work, family, or other dynamics, they may look to you as that source of conflict, as it’s a requirement for life to feel “normal.”
If you recognize that this might be the culprit of your nit-picking partner, honesty is the best policy. Approach him/her patiently and suggest that due to past relationship experiences, you feel as if he/she is pointing out flaws unnecessarily. Talk this through to get to the bottom of his/her drive to make a problem out of something negligible.
Nit-picking or henpecking can also be a way to control a love interest. When the relationship feels out of their control, or some aspect of life feels this way, using a stream of criticism can help the instigator feel in control of something - you. It can be from their incessant need to have clean kitchen counters or a tendency to isolate you from friends or family. Control shows up in his/her life far beyond the need to criticize you. It’s a way for them to feel empowered but if you feel nit-picking is used as a means to control, it’s important to remember that love should be unconditional and result in both partners feeling valued and upheld and communicate this to your partner.
Keeping these “Four Horsemen” in mind over the holidays and their antidotes can be helpful in getting through rough patches over the holidays. Here’s to a very merry holiday season and joyous New Year!