How to fight off The Four Horseman of the Relationship Apocalypse: Foster Positive Communication, Appreciation and Respect

How is your communication with your partner lately? It is very common in many relationships, for partners to develop unhelpful communication styles that have the power to gradually erode what was once a great, respectful relationship to something that is filled with negativity and powerful emotions.

A couple of weeks ago we discussed the important topic of communication in relationships and identified the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, 4 communication styles that are strong predictors of the demise of relationships, separation and divorce. For those who missed this blog you can read more here, but let me briefly review these Four Horseman to set the scene before we move on to explore how we can counter these styles with effective antidotes that foster positive communication, appreciation and respect within a relationship.

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

1.       Criticism: Criticism refers to the tendency to attack your partner to the core of their being, including attacks on their character or personality. When consistent and harsh, this pattern has the impact of the other partner feeling hurt, attacked and judged.

2.       Contempt:  This refers to the tendency to treat a partner meanly, with disrespect and to judge harshly from a position of superiority. This may include sarcasm, name calling or disrespectful body language such as eye rolling.

3.       Defensiveness: This refers to the pattern of becoming defensive when criticized by a partner or when a partner complains. Partners who have been criticised often immediately react, try to justify behaviour and feel attacked. This behaviour then leads to the other partner feeling dismissed and that their feelings are unimportant.

4.       Stonewalling: Stonewalling refers to the tendency to withdraw from a difficult conversation in a range of ways including tuning out, remaining silent, distracting with other activities or walking away. People often do this to avoid conflict and further discomfort, acting to protective mechanism for the person but more likely to cause greater problems within the relationship long term.

So if any of these patterns sound familiar, now is the time to pay attention as John Gottman’s work on love and relationships has also supported four main antidotes to these Four Horseman to prevent your relationship from deteriorating and becoming another divorce statistic.

So what do you need to know to change your communication, manage conflict effectively and get you on track?

Here are the 4 antidotes to fighting off the four Horseman in your relationship.  These skills will help you learn to fight fair and to better understand the power of managing conflict well in your relationship.

The Four Antidotes

1.       Complain without blame (Antidote to Criticism):

The difference between criticism and complaining is significant. When you criticise you may easily attack a person’s character. In order to avoid the impact of consistent criticism but maintain an ability to express concerns and your feelings about things, it is important to learn to complain without blame. Essentially this involves applying assertiveness skills by respectfully telling your partner using  “I” statements about your feelings and then clearly expressing a need or a preference for something.

e.g.   You are so selfish. You always speak about yourself (Criticism)

e.g. “When you speak for a long time about your day, I feel left out and unimportant. I’d prefer it if you could give me some time to speak about my day also (Complain without blame)

2.       Take responsibility (Antidote to Defensiveness)

Becoming defensive when criticized is a very common pattern in a relationship. When you become defensive you may well be protecting yourself but you are also sending the message that you are not to blame and essentially placing the responsibility for the problems with your partner, commonly leading to further anger and an escalation of conflict. The answer is to pause before you react, listen actively and be willing to accept some responsibility, even if not full responsibility.

e.g. It’s your fault there is a pile of unpaid bills over there. I can’t believe I have to remind you all the time. (Defensiveness)

e.g. I’m sorry that I have not been as reliable lately. Part of the problem certainly lies with me. (antidote to Defensiveness – Take responsibility)

3.       Build culture of appreciation (Antidote to Contempt)

When you respond from a position of power and superiority with your partner by calling them names, being hostile, using sarcasm continually or using disrespectful body language,  it destroys respect and positivity in your relationship. The good news is that you can do something about this very dangerous predictor of relationship breakdown by fostering a culture within your relationship of appreciation and respect. No matter how irritated you are with your partner sometimes, make sure you find times to express your appreciation.

e.g. You are stupid. (Contempt)

e.g. I am very proud of how you have faced some significant challenges at work lately. (Antidote – Appreciation)

4.       Do physiological self-soothing (Antidote to Stonewalling)

Stonewalling, the tendency to withdraw in some way from an interaction or conflict is a very powerful behaviour that is not very effective in terms of conflict resolution and often escalates the emotional distress on both sides. The antidote is to learn the skills of physicological self-soothing as a means of stopping a conflict before it gets out of hand.

As soon as it becomes clear that either one of you or both are becoming flooded with emotion or your heart rate is increasing it is time to stop and consider taking a break from the conversation. When in this state you are unable to process information effectively and have a tendency to shut down your best listening skills as the emotion takes hold, meaning that good conflict resolution is impossible.

By taking a break for at least 20 minutes you give your body and mind the opportunity to calm down so your heart rate drops again to a normal resting rate. Whether it be mindfulness meditation, deep breathing or doing something relaxing like listening to music or going for a walk, this time out should be used to reach a better emotional state where clear thinking and a calming disposition allows for a more rational and helpful discussion that has the greatest chance of a positive resolution.

So, there you have it, 4 very practical strategies to shift unhelpful patterns of communication and keep the Four Horseman of the relationship apocalypse at bay. In my experience, couples need help with learning these skills and it helps them feel empowered in their relationships by enabling them to respond more consciously to their partner.

If you are still struggling with some of these patterns in your relationship, maybe it is time to do your own reflection and consider whether couple therapy might be suitable to assist in breaking these patterns.

Good luck in keeping the Four Horsemen away. Remember that change is challenging, but give yourself permission to make mistakes and keep trying. At Attuned we are here to help you on this path, if we are able, to a respectful happier long lasting relationship.

Alexandra Frost, Clinical Psychologist

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