When the Four Horsemen Join Your Relationship

wilkins elizabeth

Elizabeth Wilkins, LMFT-A

The work of researcher, John Gottman, PhD, has been influential in the study and understanding of relationships and what causes them to fail or succeed. After 30 years of research, Dr. Gottman has found that only 31% of problems in a relationship are resolvable, meaning 69% of a couple’s conflicts are perpetual issues.

Instead of trying to fix every problem, success will come from a couple’s ability to effectively manage their conflict and communicate with one another in a spirit of acceptance, humor, and affection. Additionally, research shows that the ratio of positive to negative interactions for a relationship to remain stable is 5:1. Meaning, for every 1 negative interaction a couple experiences, there must be 5 positive interactions to maintain an overall positive balance.

Distressed couples often find their relationship has been joined by Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling). The presence of any of these can lead to an escalation of negativity between partners and can develop into a pattern of dysfunctional interaction.

  • Criticism is present when you attack your partner’s personality or character. Examples: “You never do what I ask!” “Why are you so messy?” “You always have some reason why you can’t help me with the kids.” “What is it you even do all day?”

  • Contempt is present when you attack your partner’s sense of self in an attempt to insult him or her. Examples: name-calling, sarcasm, mockery, rolling your eyes

  • Defensiveness is present when you see yourself as the victim or feel the need to protect yourself from an attack. Examples: making excuses, invalidating what your partner says, cross-complaining (“You never take out the trash.” “Well, you never unload the dishwasher!”)

  • Stonewalling is present when you withdraw as a way to avoid the conflict. Examples: stony silence, one-word answers, silent treatment, refusing to talk about anything related to the argument

If the Four Horsemen have entered your relationship, you likely are experiencing a deficit of positive feelings and interactions with your partner. To maintain or regain couple stability and happiness, positive affect is essential.

At the Tarnow Center for Self-Management, our psychotherapists can work with you to identify the areas of negativity in your relationship and help you rebuild. By focusing on strengthening the friendship and regaining lost affection, couples can begin to increase each partner’s understanding of the other, find joy in the relationship again, and learn more functional patterns of interaction. If you would like more information, please call 713.621.9515.

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