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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
by Gudrun Zomerland, MFT
Dr. John Gottman can predict with 96% accuracy within the first three minutes of
a couple having a conversation whether the relationship he is watching will survive over
the long-haul or not. He bases his predictions on four potentially destructive
communication styles and coping mechanisms: (1) harsh startup, (2) the Four Horsemen
of the Apocalypse, (3) flooding, and (4) body language. In this synopsis I will focus on
the Four Horsemen.
The Four Horsemen are a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New
Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. Dr. Gottman
uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a
The first horseman in a relationship is criticism. Criticizing our partner is
different than offering a critique or having a complaint. The latter two are about specific
issues, whereas the former attacks our partner at the core. In effect, we are dismantling
his or her whole being when we criticize.
Example: "I was scared when you were running late and didn't call me. I thought
we had agreed that we would do that for each other" is a complaint. "You never think
about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don't believe you are that forgetful;
you just don't think about me" is a criticism.
The second horseman is contempt. When we communicate from this state, we are
being mean, treating others with disrespect by using sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling,
and/or body language such as eye-rolling. The partner feels despised and worthless.
Contempt is toxic and cannot be replaced with anything. It must be eliminated.
Example: "I've been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this
house going and all you do, when you come home from work, is to flop down on that
sofa and become a couch potato. You are just about the sorriest excuse for a husband I
can think of."
The third horseman is defensiveness. This is an easy one to fall into. We feel
accused of something and think that, if we tell our partner our excuse for doing what we
did, he or she will back off. But the excuse just tells our partner that we haven't
considered anything he or she has said. Basically, by defending ourselves we are
ignoring our partner.
Example: She: "Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we are not
coming tonight as you said this morning you would?" He: "I was just too darn busy
today. As a matter of fact you knew how busy my schedule was. Why didn't you just do
it?" He not only responds defensively but turns the table and makes it her fault. A nondefensive
response would have been: "Oooops, I forgot. I should have asked you this
morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. Let me call them right now."
The fourth horseman is stonewalling. When we stonewall, we avoid conflict
either because we are unconscious of our own feelings or because we are afraid. Rather
than confronting the issues (usually they tend to accumulate) with our partner, we make
evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, being busy or engaging in obsessive
behaviors. We simply stop engaging in the business of relating to another person.
My experience as couples counselor for the past 16 years has validated what Dr.
Gottman's research has shown. When all four horsemen are active and alive in a
relationship, it is most likely too late to turn it around. I believe when the latter two,
defensiveness and stonewalling are present, your relationship has a chance to survive if
you seek outside help such as couples counseling. In order to change the first two
horsemen, criticism and contempt, the person who engages in them really needs
individual counseling because the attack on another person's worth usually stems from
childhood wounds such as parental criticism, shaming, belittling or excessive demands.
Feel free to call me for a free 20-minute phone consultation or to set up a regular
Visit Dr. Gottman's website at http://www.gottman.com/marriage.
"The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work" is available at Amazon.com.
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©2005-2013 Gudrun Zomerland, Chinn Street Counseling Center; all rights reserved.