Improving Communication with your Partner: Gottman's 4 Horsemen
By: Cristian Renzi
Your partner is a person in your life who you are likely extremely close with. They are possibly the person in your life who you feel the most connected to, the person you want to spend the most time with, and the person you think about going home to every day. However, as many people have probably already told you, these relationships are like a house. They require a strong foundation, constant work, a repair from time to time, and the occasional renovation. Communicating with your partner is something I would consider “constant work”. Let’s pretend communicating is almost like cleaning your house. If it is done correctly it is rewarding, it makes things feel sparkly and new, and sometimes when you’re cleaning up you might find something that you forgot about for years. This is the same when communicating with your partner. When you are done having a deep conversation with your partner, it certainly feels rewarding, it can definitely make the relationship feel refreshed and rejuvenated, and sometimes it can remind you of the very reason you fell in love in the first place. However, if cleaning is done wrong, or not often enough, it can make things feel stagnant, cobwebs form, and things begin to build up which can make you sick. These things can also happen in a relationship. So what exactly are some things we can do, or things to avoid doing, in order to keep a clean house and happy relationship?
Dr. John Gottman, a famous relationship researcher identifies four behaviours a couple should never engage in when communicating, all of which predict an increased likelihood of relationship distress or breakup, which he has labeled “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Gottman et al., 2017).
THE FOUR HORSEMEN
The first of the four horsemen is criticism. Criticism occurs when one partner blames the situation at hand on a defect in the other partner. For example, instead of a general statement such as “Babe, I think we are spending too much. We need to save more.” One partner might criticize the other and say something like “You need to stop spending so much on all those clothes. We will never have a future because of you!” Instead of criticizing your partner, using statements like the first one mentioned are much less confrontational and make you and your partner into a team, instead of placing the blame on one person.
Defensiveness usually follows criticism, but it is not the only time it can occur. Examples of a defensive statement by the partner might include things like “No, I don’t buy that many clothes.” or perhaps “I only buy so many clothes because you ruin them in the laundry all the time.” or even something as simple as “Stop picking on me, you know I have a lot of stuff going on right now.” Defensiveness can be lessened when a partner is not criticized, and through taking some form of responsibility. For example, “You’re right I have been shopping more, but I love fashion and it makes me feel happy. Maybe I will try shopping at a less expensive store or alter the clothes I have.”
Contempt is likely the most damaging to relationships and is certainly the one that hurts the most when it occurs. Contempt often comes from one partner attempting to feel superior to the other and may include things like name calling, mocking, sarcasm and comparing your partner to others in a negative way. A contemptuous partner might say something like “I learned to budget when I was in high school, we’re 40 years old now when are you finally going to get it together? I’m not going to end up on the streets because you needed new shoes!” To battle contempt, a partner should instead express their own needs, feelings and fears. For example, “It really makes me nervous when I see a new shoe box every time I come home from work, I need to work on lessening that nervousness, but let’s come to a compromise in the mean-time.”
Stonewalling occurs when one partner completely withdraws from the conversation at hand. This partner stops verbally and non-verbally responding to their partner, they no longer communicate with words, head nods or verbalizations. They often stare at the floor, and males often engage in stonewalling more than females do. This attempt at de-escalating the situation also usually only makes it worse. The antidote to stonewalling would be to engage in self-soothing and relaxation exercises in order to bring the stonewalling partner back to a place where they can participate in the conversation meaningfully. This might include taking a short break engaged in by both partners, progressive muscle relaxation or breathing exercises. It is important to re-engage with the conversation soon after stopping or the non-stonewalling partner may think that it is another attempt by the stonewalling partner to avoid the conversation at hand.
Communicating is just like cleaning, it may seem like something that is second nature, easy to do and comes without practice, but in reality, it can sometimes be difficult and everyone has their own way of going about it. There are of course many different ways to communicate with your partner that can be effective, and many ways that could be detrimental. When you are communicating with your partner it is unlikely that you will be thinking “Okay, he is beginning to show signs of stonewalling, perhaps we should move the conversation this way.” Instead let it come naturally, find what works for you, and go with that. The most important thing is that you avoid the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse mentioned above. If you do find yourself resorting to some of those behaviours, it is crucial that you stop them. This sounds much simpler than it is, and if you feel as though you cannot stop them on your own, it is imperative that you seek a relationship therapist to help you do so, as your relationship may depend on it. It will take practice, but eventually if your communication with your partner improves, so will many other aspects of your relationship.
Gottman, J., Cole, C., & Cole, D. L. (2017). Four Horsemen in Couple and Family Therapy. Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy, 1-5.