At times we can get caught up in patterns that can negatively impact our relationships without us even realising it. Here are four main themes identified by Dr. John Gottman, a psychological researcher focused on intimate relationships.
He refers to these as the four horseman. See if any of these resonate with.
1) Being Defensive
Playing the victim, blaming the other person, and not taking responsibility are all examples of defensiveness. Sometimes defensiveness can be rooted in not knowing how to act or what to say when a partner comes forth with a criticism. People who become defensive may have learned the behaviour from their parents or partner. Fear could be one of the factors when someone becomes defensive. Sometimes that fear can cause people to hesitate going deeper and learning the root of their fear or true feelings as to why they are feeling defensive. Once someone takes the time to explore their feelings and behaviours, they may uncover a strong feeling or value.
For example: ‘I’m afraid of hurting my partners feelings if I tell them I do not want to go shopping’.
2) Directing Criticism
Criticism often can cause a partner to become defensive or it can even start an argument. Attacking your partner’s character, saying ‘you always’ or ‘you never’, using ‘you statements’ instead of ‘I statements’ are all examples of how criticism can lure it’s ugly head. Criticizing a partner is a sure fire way to create chaos in a relationship and it will leave a partner feeling like they are not worthy. Criticism can be rooted in a person’s upbringing when a person perhaps did not feel valued and therefore the behaviour becomes mirrored onto a partner.
Some helpful antidotes to criticism are:
a) focus heavily on the positives – ‘remember when we used to do ____ that was so fun, can we do that again soon?’ ,
b) changing ourselves first before we try and change our partner,
c) telling our partner how we feel – for example ‘I was sad when you came home late last night because I was really looking forward to our quality time together’, and
d) building self-esteem and self-confidence (it will help with the self criticisms that can lead to criticizing others).
Shutting down, acting busy and tuning their partner out are some examples of stonewalling. It is important to communicate to a partner, even in times when someone is feeling overwhelmed. Instead of shutting down and saying nothing, you could say ‘My head is spinning with too many thoughts and feelings, I need some time to process this. I still would like to talk to you more about this. I still love you.’ It doesn’t have to be said exactly like in this way but it is simply an example of some words that can be used. When a person stonewalls their partner, it completely shuts down communication and creates a wall between each person. Design a language, strategy, plan or even safe word to call a timeout when things get really heated. This strategy still communicates to both parties that each are loved and connected, even thought a timeout is called. Further, it communicates that both people are still wanting to work together but just need some time and space to sort through their emotions.
Contempt is said to be the most complex and negative of the horsemen. Rolling eyes, feeling or acting superior and name calling or mocking are examples of contempt. There can be various reasons why someone will use contempt against a partner. Sometimes a partner will use the other horsemen, then move towards using contempt. Some people have used contempt their whole lives. It may take a lot of self reflection and growth for a person to soften away from using contempt.
Even if all four of the horsemen exist in a relationship, there is still hope to improve communication. It may be good to speak with a professional therapist who can help guide you along the journey.