They’re better known as a biblical metaphor for the end of the world, but the fabled Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have received a modern revival, courtesy of relationship expert John Gottman.
Dr. Gottman’s approach to marriage analysis includes defining four communication styles, which he calls the Four Horsemen. Their namesake comes from his research, which reveals that not only are they strong predictors of divorce, they can even impact health and disrupt the immune system.
- Criticism: when there is conflict, a person who criticizes will attack rather than merely complain. For example, blame might get placed on the person’s character for not doing an errand, rather than simply expressing frustration.
- Contempt: communication involving contempt includes mocking, sarcasm, belittling, ridiculing, and other forms of disrespect. In a nutshell, contemptuous behavior is mean, and intended to hurt the person you are engaging with. It’s no surprise, then, that Gottman found this trait was the most likely to lead to divorce.
- Defensiveness: people often respond to criticism with defensiveness. As such, many of the Four Horsemen act as a cycle that it can be difficult to escape from. For instance, if a person criticizes their spouse for something, the spouse might defensively respond with a snippy, impatient quip or accusation. This creates further tension, keeping the cycle of conflict alive.
- Stonewalling: when a person willfully ignores whomever they are having a conflict with and shuts down conversation, they are engaging in stonewalling. Often used in response to contempt, frequent stonewalling impedes the ability to move past conflict and work on improving communication tactics.
For a marriage that is on the rocks, identifying whether these traits are present can provide clarity. It might not ultimately rescue your relationship, but it can lead to greater understanding of the issues underlying the turmoil. Recognizing them can help you navigate future interactions as you handle divorce proceedings, co-parenting, and other necessary communication.