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  • Writer's pictureAJ Spatz

The Four Horsemen of Relationship Apocalypse

In the Book of Revelation, the four horsemen signify impending doom, representing conquest, war, famine, and death. They are harbingers of the apocalypse, foretelling destruction and chaos. Similarly, Dr. John Gottman’s four horsemen of relationships signify the potential downfall of a marriage or partnership if left unchecked. These behaviors—Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling—erode the very foundation of a healthy relationship. Understanding these behaviors and their antidotes is essential for fostering a loving, resilient partnership. By integrating Gottman’s research with biblical wisdom, we can find a balanced approach to nurturing relationships, promoting both emotional health and spiritual growth.


The Four Horsemen


Criticism

Criticism involves attacking your partner’s character or personality rather than focusing on specific behaviors. It often starts with phrases like “You always…” or “You never…”. Unlike a complaint, which addresses a specific issue, criticism generalizes and targets the person. This form of communication is particularly damaging because it implies a fundamental flaw in your partner, making them feel attacked and unvalued.


For example, instead of saying, “I’m upset that you didn’t take out the trash,” which addresses a specific behavior, a critical comment would be, “You never take out the trash. You’re so lazy!” This shifts the focus from the behavior to the person, creating a sense of personal attack and defensiveness.


Criticism can lead to a cycle of negativity and resentment. When partners frequently criticize each other, it creates a toxic environment where neither feels safe or appreciated. Over time, this erodes trust and intimacy, making constructive communication increasingly difficult.


Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a natural response to criticism, where one partner tries to protect themselves by denying responsibility, making excuses, or counter-attacking. Defensiveness can manifest in several ways:


  1. Blame-Shifting: Redirecting the blame back onto the partner. For example, “It’s not my fault we’re late; you never give me enough time to get ready.”

  2. Playing the Victim: Presenting oneself as the victim to deflect criticism. For example, “Why are you always blaming me? It’s like nothing I do is ever good enough for you.”


Biblical examples of defensiveness include Adam blaming Eve and God for his disobedience, and Eve blaming the serpent (Genesis 3:12-13). This refusal to take responsibility prevents constructive dialogue and resolution, escalating conflicts instead of resolving them. Defensiveness shuts down communication and prevents partners from understanding each other’s perspectives and feelings.


Contempt

Contempt involves expressing a sense of superiority over one’s partner, often through sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, or body language such as eye-rolling. It is the most destructive of the four horsemen and a significant predictor of divorce. Contempt is essentially a form of disdain or scorn directed towards one’s partner. It is the belief that the other person is beneath you, and it often manifests as a “put-down” that makes the other person feel despised and worthless. We use “put-downs” when we see the person as worthy of being beneath us, which erodes the foundation of respect and love in a relationship.


Contempt is fueled by long-standing negative thoughts about one’s partner. When contempt is present, it creates an environment of hostility and disrespect. For example, a contemptuous comment might be, “Oh, you forgot to pay the bill again? How surprising. You’re so incompetent.” This statement not only criticizes but also belittles the partner, implying they are incapable and unworthy of respect.


Contempt is particularly damaging because it conveys disgust and a lack of respect. It attacks the very core of a person’s self-worth, making them feel unloved and unappreciated. This can lead to feelings of shame, resentment, and hopelessness, significantly harming the relationship.


Stonewalling

Stonewalling occurs when one partner withdraws from the interaction, effectively shutting down communication. This can be seen as “emotionally hanging up on someone.” When stonewalling, the partner disengages, stops responding, and withdraws from the conversation. This often happens in response to feeling overwhelmed or emotionally flooded. The responsibility to reengage lies with the person who disengaged. If the other partner attempts to reinitiate conversation, the stonewalling partner might ignore them, effectively sending them to “voicemail.”


Stonewalling can be particularly damaging because it creates a barrier to communication and connection. It leaves the other partner feeling ignored and invalidated. For example, during a heated argument, one partner might suddenly stop talking, look away, or leave the room. This withdrawal can feel like abandonment, exacerbating feelings of isolation and frustration.


The act of stonewalling often stems from a desire to avoid conflict and emotional discomfort. However, it ultimately prevents resolution and deepens the divide between partners. Over time, repeated stonewalling can lead to a breakdown in communication and intimacy, making it increasingly difficult to address and resolve issues.


Example Interaction Dialogue

Partner A: “You never help around the house. You’re so lazy!” (Criticism)

Partner B: “I’m tired from work. Why are you always on my case?” (Defensiveness)

Partner A: “Always on your case? I shouldn't have to treat you like a child, so stop acting like one!” (Contempt)

Partner B: (Silent, looking away, not responding) (Stonewalling)


In this example, Partner A starts with criticism, attacking Partner B’s character rather than addressing a specific behavior. Partner B responds defensively, refusing to take responsibility and counter-attacking. Partner A then expresses contempt, belittling Partner B and making them feel worthless. Finally, Partner B stonewalls, withdrawing from the conversation and shutting down communication. This pattern of interaction illustrates how the four horsemen can escalate conflicts and damage the relationship.


Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

Antidote to Criticism: Gentle Start-Up

Instead of criticizing, use a gentle start-up to express your feelings and needs without blaming your partner. This involves stating your concerns in a non-accusatory manner.


A gentle start-up focuses on “I” statements rather than “You” statements, which helps to avoid placing blame and reduces defensiveness. For example, instead of saying, “You never help around the house,” a gentle start-up might be, “I feel overwhelmed with the house chores and could use some help. Can we work together on this?”

Ephesians 4:29 - “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

Antidote to Defensiveness: Accept Responsibility

Instead of becoming defensive, accept responsibility, even if it’s only for part of the conflict. This approach fosters open communication and resolution.


Accepting responsibility involves acknowledging your role in the situation and expressing willingness to make changes. For example, instead of saying, “I’m busy, and you never help either,” you might say, “You’re right. I forgot to take out the trash. I’ll do it now.”

Proverbs 15:1 - “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Antidote to Contempt: Build a Culture of Appreciation and Respect

To counteract contempt, work on building a culture of appreciation and respect in the relationship. Regularly express gratitude and positive feelings towards your partner.


Building appreciation involves intentionally recognizing and verbalizing the positive qualities and actions of your partner. This can be as simple as saying, “I appreciate how hard you work for us,” or “Thank you for being so supportive.” Over time, this practice can help shift the focus from negative to positive, fostering a more loving and respectful relationship.

Ephesians 4:31-32 - “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Antidote to Stonewalling: Physiological Self-Soothing and Reengagement

When feeling overwhelmed, it’s important to take a break and calm down. The person who disengages must take responsibility to reengage in the conversation.


Physiological self-soothing involves recognizing when you are feeling emotionally flooded and taking steps to calm down before continuing the conversation. This might include deep breathing, taking a walk, or practicing mindfulness. Once you have calmed down, it is important to reengage with your partner and continue the conversation.

James 1:19 - “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

Example:

Partner B: “I’m feeling too overwhelmed to discuss this right now. Can we take a 20-minute break and then come back to it? I want to make sure we handle this together.”


Overview of Practical Steps for Integrating the Antidotes

  1. Gentle Start-Up

    1. Practice using “I” statements to express your feelings and needs.

    2. Avoid starting sentences with “You” to reduce blame and defensiveness.

    3. Focus on specific behaviors rather than general character attacks.

  2. Accepting Responsibility

    1. Reflect on your role in conflicts and be willing to acknowledge your mistakes.

    2. Apologize sincerely and express a willingness to make changes.

    3. Encourage your partner to share their perspective and listen actively.

  3. Building a Culture of Appreciation and Respect

    1. Make a habit of expressing gratitude and acknowledging your partner’s positive qualities.

    2. Keep a journal to note the things you appreciate about your partner.

    3. Engage in activities that foster mutual respect and understanding, such as shared hobbies or date nights.

  4. Physiological Self-Soothing and Reengagement

    1. Develop strategies for calming down when feeling emotionally flooded, such as deep breathing or taking a walk.

    2. Communicate your need for a break to your partner and set a specific time to resume the conversation.

    3. Reengage with a focus on resolving the issue and maintaining a respectful dialogue.


Biblical Wisdom for Strengthening Relationships

Incorporating biblical principles can provide additional guidance and support for nurturing a healthy relationship. Here are some key verses and insights:


Love and Kindness:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).

Practicing love and kindness can help build a strong foundation for your relationship.


Forgiveness:

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).

Embracing forgiveness can help heal past wounds and promote a culture of grace and compassion.


Unity/Oneness and Peace:

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate" (Matthew 19:4-6).

Striving for unity and peace can strengthen your relationship and create a harmonious environment.


Final Thoughts

By understanding and addressing the four horsemen of Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling, couples can transform their communication patterns and build stronger, more resilient relationships. Integrating Gottman’s research with biblical wisdom offers a holistic approach that nurtures both emotional and spiritual well-being. Through gentle communication, mutual respect, personal responsibility, and emotional regulation, couples can navigate conflicts effectively and deepen their connection.


Remember, a healthy relationship requires ongoing effort and commitment. By applying these principles and seeking support from both psychological research and biblical teachings, you can cultivate a loving, enduring partnership that stands the test of time.


Reflection Questions

• How can you practice love and kindness in your daily interactions with your partner?

• What horsemen, if any, are present in your relationship? Are there any that are more familiar to you?

• What steps can you take to foster forgiveness and reconciliation in your relationship?

• How can you work together with your partner to maintain unity and peace?

• What strategies can you use to remain calm and reengage constructively during conflicts?

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