The four horsemen of the Apocalypse

I was first attracted to the work of John Gottman Ph.D some years ago, and I found his ideas really powerful and helpful both in my own relating, but also in guiding others…

He is a professor emeritus in psychology and he is known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis, and for having identified the four behaviours that are the most destructive to relationship…

He calls them ‘The four horsemen of the Apocalypse’.

These four behaviours are :

Criticism – Defensiveness – Contempt – Stonewalling.

All relationships are likely to experience these dynamics at some time…

Of course ideally they are eradicated completely – but it is the frequency with which they appear in relating that can predict whether a couple will stay together or part company.

Criticism…

Is a very deadly weapon in relationship – in any relationship – but it can much do much damage to the health, harmony and safety of the space between a couple.

The ‘space between us’ is where the relationship is existing… Contaminating it with criticism depletes and reduces friendship, love and the firm foundation of any marriage or partnership.

Criticism is a personal attack, it is saying that the person is somehow flawed… It can immediately block any way of communicating and connecting, or creating the space to genuinely explore and uncover what the need within the criticism is, and so address the real problem.

It also inevitably leads into the next ‘horseman’ which is that ‘the other’ becomes defensive and so neither person feels validated or listened too…

Defensive…

However unfair the criticism, when we are defensive it can escalate the problem. It means that there is no space to create a solution, or perhaps hear that we have some responsibility for the issue…

It separates rather than joins together… Therefore when we feel defensive, it is very important that we ‘press pause’ and recognize that being defensive never creates harmony, or maintains connection or allows the space to work things out together.

Contempt…

Essentially any time we try to put another person down, to be superior over them – deem them not worthy – we are showing contempt. This can be done by name calling, ‘you idiot’, or through being critical… We can also show subtle but very deadly contempt of another through facial expressions, rolling of eyes, raising eyebrows, curling a lip… We have all seen people do it and maybe done it ourselves… The person is there and we raise an eyebrow to someone else…

This is contempt and is very damaging not only to the person we are in contempt of, but definitely to any relationship.

Stonewalling…

This happens when rather than engage we turn away because we are so upset that we fear that saying anything will only make matters worse… And so instead we turn away, say nothing…

Which makes matters worse!

It can also happen in small ways when someone doesn’t reply to a question, or make any sign of being in the conversation at a point when it is necessary to engage, say a few words, nod perhaps…

It often arises because the person stonewalling fears that speaking won’t help matters… But the action itself of stonewalling is very destructive, and it is important to work on our own part that wants to withdraw. In a relationship it can be helpful to identify the pattern and how it occurs when neither person is reacting… This way together we can work on our own part and clear the way to do something different…

For instance rather than carrying going on and on (if we are the one experiencing being ‘stone walled’)to the person with their back to us – instead we can learn to once again press that pause button – and recognise that they are upset… And if we are the person who is stonewalling, we can learn techniques of self relaxation, so that we can do something different and become aware of how upsetting our behaviour is to the other…

Even becoming more conscious of these habitual relationship issues can make a difference immediately to how we relate….

This is such powerful research, because we can transform our own lives through being conscious of our own behaviours, of our own reactivity, or of our own need to defend of criticise – to be unkind…

By committing to our part in the relationship that will keep the space safe, we can transform how we stay connected to our partner, to our children, our friends, our colleagues…

Of course if everyone is aware and committed to their own part, then the transformational energy is more powerful…

But if through reading this article, it allows some recognition of any patterns or ways of being that we recognise – and can see their destructive energy – then even a small amount of change can start the building blocks to a healthy and flourishing relationship that can truly flourish in the space between….

And of course, as always…

The most powerful work is that which we do within ourselves…

Clearing any feelings when the urge to self criticise arises – as well as feelings that mean we want to defend ourselves or criticise another – or the pain that arises which means we want to turn away from someone who is trying to communicate with us… To clear the feelings when we find ourselves dismissing or acting contemptuously to our own efforts our own essence; to ourselves.

When we work consistently to clear any reactivity and negative feelings within ourselves – to clear the four horsemen within – then it becomes impossible to project them outwards onto another….

And once again, the magical thing is that it is in the mirror of relating where we will discover and uncover the wounds and hurts that arise for healing within ourselves and can show us the way to be whole.

 

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