In the biblical Book of Revelations, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse signal the end of the world through conquest, war, famine, and death. The Four Horsemen that Dr. John Gottman’s research has identified as signaling the end of a relationship are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling—communication styles that threaten a marriage’s health and longevity.
When I first see a couple for relationship counseling, I assess their communication behaviors by using a set of questionnaires developed from the research of Dr. Gottman. To evaluate criticism, for example, each client answers yes or no to statements such as “I feel attacked or criticized when we talk about our disagreements” or “My partner uses phrases like ’you always’ or ’you never’ when complaining.”
Defensiveness is seen in statements like “Many of our issues are just not my problem” or “I have to defend myself because the charges against me are so unfair.” Statements such as “I try to point out the flaws in my partner’s personality that need improvement” or “I feel disgusted by some of my partner’s attitudes” assess contempt. Stonewalling is when one partner just tunes out and ignores the other, usually after a barrage of criticism. Putting up a wall of silence is an attempt to protect the stonewaller from getting flooded by physical and emotional over- reactivity. Of all the Horsemen, Dr. Gottman says this is the most likely to end a relationship.
The good news is that each of these Horsemen has an antidote. The first step is recognizing these interactions when they occur. Often when couples are stuck in a cycle of negative communication, each person is unable to see his or her own part in the problem. But with gentle coaching, clients learn to notice when they are criticizing, being contemptuous, on the defensive, or stonewalling.
Next, I show couples alternative ways to expressing themselves by using a specific antidote to each Horseman. Today, let’s talk about the antidote to criticism.
Learning to complain without blame is key to short-circuiting criticism. Any relationship may give rise to legitimate complaints. But the key to avoiding defensiveness in your partner is to complain in a way that does not place blame.
The formula is pretty simple: “When _________ happens, it makes me feel____________. What I would like from you is_________________.” For instance, when Judy says to Mark, “You’re always putting your parents’ needs before mine. You’re such an inconsiderate jerk,” the likely response from Mark might be, “I do not! And if I do, it’s because you don’t take any time to connect with them, so I have to do it all!” Placing blame just engenders defensiveness, continuing the cycle of criticism.
Helping Judy to find a different way to express her feelings might sound something like this: “Mark, I miss feeling connected to you when we are with your family. Do you think that this weekend when we see them, we can stay close? It would help me if you’d check in with me every once in a while.” In this version, Judy takes responsibility for her feelings and then asks directly for what she wants without making Mark out to be the bad guy. Mark, in turn, can listen to Judy’s request without feeling he has to justify and defend.
Antidotes to the other three Horsemen will be taken up in another post. But understanding how these concepts affect communication in marriage goes a long way to helping couples manage conflict.
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