Episode 161: Gottman’s Four Horsemen

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In this episode of our podcast, Jackie talks about the Four Horsemen that the Gottmans’ have identified as behaviors that show up in relationships that are destructive and serve as a barrier to effective communication. Jackie also talks about the antidotes the Gottmans have identified that move us out of destructive behavior into health, growth, and success. 

TRANSCRIPT: Gottman’s Four Horsemen

Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. In this episode, we are continuing our series on effective communication, and we’re going to be talking about what the Gottmans call the four horsemen. Now as I’ve talked about in previous episodes in this effective communication series, every marriage, including healthy and stable relationships, are going to have conflict. The Gottmans’ research has even shown that 69% of arguments between couples are unresolvable. Their research has also shown that it isn’t the presence of conflict that’s the problem, but rather how we react, respond to, and manage conflict that is the predictor of success or failure in relationships. Now as I’ve covered in previous episodes, there are problems that couples just won’t solve due to natural personality differences, so relationship conflict in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Relationship conflict is natural and even has some functionality and positive aspects that can provide opportunities for growth, understanding, and connection. So when we think of relationship conflict, the goal is to manage conflict rather than to resolve conflict, and a second goal would be to seek understanding rather than to argue in a right/wrong perspective.

Now John Gottman talks about the four horsemen in his research, and they use this term from the book of Revelation that the four horsemen signal end of days, and so the Gottmans used the four horsemen to identify what they see happening when the relationship itself is kind of in end of days or is going to end up in end of days for the relationship. So let’s talk about what the four horsemen are, and as we talk about each one, we’re also going to be talking about the alternative or the antidote. Instead of the negative behavior, what is the positive approach?

Now the first horseman is criticism. Criticism is different than complaining. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have complaints or that we can’t be disappointed or we can’t talk about some of those things that inevitably happen in relationships when we let each other down. Criticism, though, is the act of passing judgment and can often be severe judgement, whereas a complaint is an expression of discontent, regret, or pain. So criticism often is about the other person and may start with a “you” statement like “You never do what you say you’re going to do”, whereas a complaint is the person who’s talking expressing how they’re feeling. So you may say something like… and again this is kind of using the antidote, which is to use a gentle startup, so I may be saying something like “Hey, I understand that you’ve been busy lately. I’m just feeling disappointed, and I’d really appreciate it if you could make yourself a note to remember to pick up the dry cleaning.” If they said they were going to and they forgot to do that and you’re disappointed or you really needed that, you could use something like that, which isn’t a criticism. You’re complaining. I don’t like that you forgot to do what you said you were going to do, but it’s expressed more in terms of a complaint and “I” statements instead of a criticism and pointing the finger kind of thing, you’re doing this. So complaints do typically start with “I” and they lead to a need that you have, and the person is taking responsibility for their emotions and not making the other person responsible for what they’re feeling.

Now as I said, the antidote to criticism is a gentle startup, so these are kind of repair statements we’re making, and sometimes we make repair statements before we’ve actually had a rupture or an injury, so we’re starting off making a repair knowing that this has the potential to get into some injuries, and so I’m already starting to make repairs from the get-go. We say we’re in the “I” mode of talking in gentle startup, and if it’s a sensitive topic and we know it’s a sensitive topic, we acknowledge that and we state our intention and our need like, “Hey, I’d like to talk to you about something. I know this is kind of a hot topic for us, and I’m hoping we can get on the same page” or “I’m hoping I can gain further understanding” or “I hope that I can help clarify where I’m coming from.” Those kinds of things are kind of those gentle startups and can help the receiver of what we’re saying, the person who’s receiving what we’re saying not to feel criticized. One of the things that I use often, and I encourage couples that I work with or even just individual clients that I work with to use the phrase like “I’d like to circle back.” So I may say something like, “Hey, I’d like to circle back to a conversation that we were having the other day, and I’m noticing or I was thinking since that conversation…” and kind of I like the imagery of this circle back. I think I talked about in one of the previous episodes about how one of the mistakes we make in communicating is we think we have to say everything in one conversation, and so often there’s pressure to get it all said in this one conversation, and sometimes it’s a disjointed conversation or not clear. I like the “Hey I’d like to circle back.” It kind of implies the conversation is always happening and it’s forward, it ebbs and it flows, and it moves forward and we circle back, and then we move forward and we circle back, and we’re always communicating, and that way we don’t miss that one opportunity to say something because there’s not one opportunity to say something.

Now defensiveness is the second horseman. So I often say that defensiveness is usually a response to a perceived criticism. Defensiveness is a way of self protecting. It’s not a helpful way to communicate, but we typically will just become defensive if we perceive that we’re being attacked or we’re being criticized. Now if I’m the one speaking and I’m perceiving or I’m sensing that the person I’m talking to is defensive, it’s helpful if I get curious about that and explore and maybe even say like, “Hey, I’m sensing some defensiveness and I’m wondering if I said something that felt like criticism to you.” And then I have to be open. Maybe I did not intend to criticize them, but if they’re feeling criticized, I have to make room for their perspective, and if they say, “Yeah, I feel like when you said this or the words that you used or whatever was criticism to me.” And I may not agree with them. I may not feel like that’s accurate, but it’s one of those… if they’re feeling defensive, how am I going to maneuver around that and navigate so we can get on track and have productive conversations? Well, one of the ways to do that is to accept what they’re saying. I don’t have to get defensive about that if I don’t actually feel like I was being critical. I may say, if they give me an example, I may say something like, “Ok, thank you for sharing that with me. Can I clarify?” or “Yeah, I could have used better words than that, so let me use different words right now.” And we’re just kind of moving past it and it doesn’t have to like shut down communication or explode the communication into a conflict.

So the antidote to defensiveness is to take responsibility. So in that response, I’m taking some responsibility, right? So if I ask if there’s a perceived criticism and the answer is yes, and maybe they give me an example of what I said that they perceived as criticism, I need to take responsibility for that, and even if I don’t agree or think that it’s accurate, and sometimes in taking responsibility, I may be able to show them I didn’t mean to be critical, and at the same time, while I may not have meant it to sound critical, I am responsible for the words that I use and the words that I say, so taking responsibility may sound like, “I’m sorry. I could have said that better,” and then re-stating it in a way that doesn’t sound like criticism. It may sound like, “You know what, I know that’s a hot button for us, and I probably could have said it better.” Or “I know that’s a sensitive issue for you, and I didn’t really give you a heads-up about what I wanted to talk about, so if we need to take a break and then have this conversation and you prepare yourself, I’m happy to do that.” These are some examples of how we own our words and the effect that our words have on the person receiving them. Now genuineness is going to be critical in taking responsibility, as well as our tone in taking responsibility, and the person is either going to perceive that I’m genuine and authentic and I mean this, or that I’m using another horseman technique that we’ll talk about in a minute. So while defensiveness may occur as a result of feeling criticized, for the person who’s feeling defensive, it also never helps to solve the problem, and it doesn’t make anything better. Defensiveness is a way of blaming your partner and often escalates the conflict. So on the one hand, the person who’s talking needs to own their words and the impact they have, and they need to take responsibility. However, it’s never all on them, and the person who is being defensive and allowing defensiveness to show up in this conflict and in this conversation also needs to take responsibility. So you may say something like, “You know what, I’m noticing that I got defensive,” or “I’m noticing that I’m being really snappy today. I need to be more flexible,” or “I don’t know what’s going on with me. I just need to stop talking for a little while while I figure it out.” Whatever that looks like. “I need to be more flexible. I need to be able to understand your feelings, and for right now that’s really hard for me to do, and let me work on that and get to a place where I can understand your feelings.” Each person in the coupleship needs to take responsibility for their role in the conflict, and it really doesn’t matter who starts taking the responsibility, as long as responsibility steps in when defensiveness shows up, and so hopefully if the speaker is taking responsibility, that’s followed by the one being defensive taking responsibility. If the one who’s being defensive takes responsibility first, hopefully that’s followed by the speaker also taking some responsibility because there are two sides to the street, and this is a two-way communication and not just a one-way communication.

So the third horseman is what I was talking about. If our tone isn’t genuine or we’re really not feeling genuine, the third horseman that’s likely to be there is contempt. Now contempt shows up in statements that come from a place of superiority or thinking that I’m better than this other person. Examples of contempt can include some of the non-verbal things like eye-rolling or kind of with the facial gestures, but it can also be verbal. It can be sarcasm. It can be name-calling or mocking somebody using kind of this mocking voice, or just hostile humor are all examples of ways that contempt shows up in relationships. Now contempt is always destructive, and actually it’s the greatest predictor of divorce. So if you’re feeling superior to your partner, whether it’s morally or in intelligence, this is a sure sign that the end of days are nearing for the relationship. Each person in the coupleship is going to be different from the other person, and differences don’t need to be perceived as better or less than. These differences can actually be a positive strength to a relationship if we can accept and value them instead of putting the other one down or mocking them. Now I know sometimes this can be hard to do because I work with clients of both genders and all the things in between male and female I work with clients, and sometimes we do have these wounds I would say from the opposite gender or from a person who isn’t in the same category as me, and it’s easy to generalize that to all men or all women. I think especially lately we are so critical and judgmental of each other that it’s really easy for contempt to come in and for me to feel like my way is the best or to roll my eyes at somebody different than me. All of that is contempt, and all of that is destructive.

So the antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation and respect. So there’s a couple of ways we can build a culture of appreciation and respect in our relationship. In the last episode I talked about the sound relationship house. We talked about building love maps, and we also talked about sharing fondness and admiration. Those are great ways to build a culture of appreciation and respect. Some other ways that we can do that is we can show appreciation. We can say thank you. We can say please. Those things that we started to learn when we were very young. We can express gratitude. “Thank you so much for doing this” or “I really appreciate this” or “I’m so thankful that I have you” or whatever that looks like, and we’re showing respect for the other person. I may ask, “Hey, is it ok if I take your car where I’m going right now because it’s bigger and I’m taking a bunch of people?” Even though maybe they’re shared property, I’m asking about that. That’s a way of showing respect in a relationship, and so if those things are happening, then we know that we’ve created a positive perspective in our relationship that serves as a buffer when conflict or negative things happen. Another way that we can build a culture of appreciation and respect is the five-to-one ratio of positive to negative interactions, so research has shown that if there are five positives to every one negative interaction, the relationship will succeed and there’s enough positive deposits in the relationship bank account to cover the negative or withdrawals that are the negative interactions that will occur in a relationship.

Now the fourth horseman is stonewalling, and stonewalling is when someone completely withdraws from a conflict and no longer responds to their partner. Another name for this is the silent treatment, and it’s not just that they’re processing. Sometimes that happens and we kind of shut down, we get overwhelmed because we’re trying to process what’s happening, but stonewalling is different than that. Stonewalling is punishing with silence, and withdrawal usually does happen when a person gets flooded or emotionally overwhelmed, and when we get flooded or emotionally overwhelmed, it’s not uncommon that we’re starting to feel a lot of emotional pressure in the relationship and we take a step back or we stop talking or we disengage. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes that’s actually helpful than trying to continue going forward when we’re in a flooded state. Now when were flooded or we’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, our heart rate increases. Our body releases stress hormones into the bloodstream, and it can even trigger this fight or flight response, or freeze, and we’re typically not able to fluidly bring in information and process it and then express that information when we’re in that flooded or emotionally overwhelmed state.

So the antidote to stonewalling is to physiologically self-soothe. Now in one of the longitudinal studies performed by the Gottmans, they interrupted couples after 15 minutes of an argument, so they’re watching the couples, they’ve got things hooked up, they know that their heart rate is increasing, they’re predicting that stress hormones are being flooded and dumped into the bloodstream. So they let them go for 15 minutes in this argument, and then they interrupt them and they tell them that they need to adjust the equipment, so they ask the couple not to talk about their issue and to just read one of the magazines they have for a half hour. It will take about a half hour, and what they found is after that half hour of the couple not talking and just looking at a magazine, when the couple started talking again, their heart rates were significantly lower and their interaction was more positive and productive. So what happened? Well, during that half hour, each person had physiologically self-soothed by reading the magazine and just avoiding the discussion. That seems so simple. Maybe you’re asking, well what magazine were they reading? Actually it didn’t matter. Once they had calmed down and the system had kind of had a chance to reset itself and they were no longer flooded, then they were able to return to the conversation in a much more productive and less emotionally triggered way.

So you know when I was married, one person who gave me advice… actually it wasn’t just one person. I got this advice from several people, and you know, sometimes I don’t know if you do this, but when I was attending my bridal shower, it was one of the things everybody would give me a piece of advice, and a lot of women at my bridal showers agreed “Don’t go to bed angry,” and to me, even at that point, I had my bachelor’s degree in social work. I had read some things, and I had grown up in a house where my parents fought, and so this advice of don’t go to bed angry, I was just like my parents didn’t do that. They didn’t go to bed angry, and you know what happened? They didn’t get good sleep, and I didn’t get good sleep because they were up all night arguing, and so I know that their intention was good and they were trying to give me this advice to help me in my marriage. I kind of thought of it as just a useless platitude that people say, and I often say to couples, DO go to bed angry. If you can’t get some resolution and if you can’t kind of get on the same page, if it’s about 10pm, go to bed. Watch TV. Do something. Get a good night’s sleep, and more than likely when you wake up the next day, you’re going to have a different perspective and some different capabilities to come back and continue that conversation, and it’s much better than staying up until 3:00 in the morning fighting it out or talking it out. So again, it isn’t usually helpful to use “you” statements when… maybe we’re noticing that our partner is flooded and we don’t think we are, but it’s not usually helpful to say, “You know what, you’re flooded, and you need to take a break.” Instead, even if you don’t think you’re flooded, if you notice your partner is, I think just say, “Hey, I’m getting a little overwhelmed,” because the truth is if we’re in a conversation with somebody and the other person is getting flooded, that is overwhelming to us, and so just own it and just say like, “Hey, I’m getting overwhelmed. Can we take a break? Can we hit pause and come back to this in an hour?” And hopefully that doesn’t trigger them and their abandonment stuff. If that triggers abandonment for you to push pause on something, or I also hear from couples a lot of times “We’ll never get back to it,” so we’ll talk about that in a minute, but what happens for couples that don’t take a break is the emotions either end up with stonewalling and now I’m punishing you through my silence and my unwillingness to engage, and that does create some space, but it’s also punishing, or I might bottle up the emotions and then next time that conflict happens, these emotions that I bottled up are now here and I’m mad at you about that too, and that’s not even current. Or another thing that can happen is I just explode at you because these emotions are coming and they’re intense and I can’t take a break, and so it’s kind of like what the hell, and I just come after you and the emotions kind of explode. So what the Gottmans researched showed is that when we take a break, tit needs to last at least 20 minutes because it will take the body that long to psychologically and physiologically calm down, and it’s important that during that time, during that 20-minute window, we avoid thoughts of righteous indignation, something like “I don’t have to take this anymore,” or “I can’t believe I have to put up with this,” or innocent victimhood, like “Why does he always pick on me? This is so unfair. It’s all about him. He never sees me.” Like that’s some innocent victimhood. Now for some couples, they go there, and it’s hard for them not to get there, and I just tell them that’s fine. However long it takes you, though, to get out of your victimhood or out of your indignation, like you have to be out of that for 20 minutes. We can’t be ruminating and rehashing this and count that as our 20 minutes, or we’re actually taking the break did not work for us, so that’s where we need at least 20 minutes, but for some people it might be a couple of hours before they actually are self-soothed. During that 20 minutes, it’s important to spend your time doing something that’s distracting and soothing, so listening to music, reading, going on a walk, or any other form of exercise. It doesn’t really matter what you do to self-soothe as long as it gets you out of the rumination and kind of re-hashing this argument.

Now I also usually tell couples no more than 24 hours because that just tends to feel like avoiding, and unless you’re schedule really… like if something happens and there is a conflict and then we’ve got something after that and after that and we don’t really… maybe one person’s going out of town for work, we may not be able to get back to it in 24 hours, but those should be the exceptions rather than the rule to how we handle this conflict, so for sure within 24 hours, we’ve circled back and we’ve gotten ourselves to a calm, self-soothed place so that we’re able to have this conversation and not be emotionally triggered, and we can start to have the conversation and I’m not just using this time out or this pause as a way to then avoid and not come back to it.

Now another antidote to keep in mind as you begin practicing the four horsemen and their antidotes… I don’t want you practicing the four horsemen actually, but if you’re noticing and starting to keep track of when the four horsemen are showing up and then being able to use one of those antidotes to get you out, so another thing to begin practicing or watching and keeping track of in the relationship is what John Gottman refers to as being able to accept influence. Now in his book “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” Gottman explains that men who accept influence respect their partner’s opinions and feelings. They don’t resist power-sharing or joint decision making. They understand that for their marriage to thrive, they have to share the driver’s seat. Now it’s important for women to accept influence, too, but in John’s research, it showed that the majority of women already do this, and he does kind of address the patriarchal culture that at least in most countries and in America heterosexual couples still find themselves in, and that this is one of the factors that they noticed that came up in their research and that he accounted for in the patriarchal culture. So in a patriarchal culture, women are kind of raised and socialized to accept influence. Men on the other hand, it requires a lot more for a man to let go of maybe distancing or attacking or defensiveness, and because for him he might read that as adopting an inferior position, rather than just allowing his partner’s needs to be of primary importance in his life. So accepting influence is about moving from a position of “me” to a position of “we”, which requires a shift towards more maturity and complexity beyond seeing this world as a binary win / lose / right / wrong / zero sum game. Stan Tatkin, PhD also does a lot of work with relationships and has several good books out there on relationships. He describes this movement from a one-person system to a two-person system, and he says that… what he calls that is secure functioning, and this shift demands and facilitates maturation by caring for the relationship in the long-term by considering our partner’s mind and emotion. Now in Gottman’s research, he found that even in the first few months of marriage, men who allow their wives to influence them have happier marriages and are less likely to divorce than men who resist their wife’s influence. Statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct. I’m going to say that again. When a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct. That’s a staggering number. When high double-digits show up in social science research, something important is attempting to be described. Now we know that men are socialized to pursue influence and respect and power. They like having it. They like getting it. They like chasing it, and they’re also culturally rewarded for achievement and accumulating influence, respect, and authority, so control and respect and power kind of define the most regressive aspects of what it means to be male, so it can be difficult for men to make a shift and allow themselves to not always be in control and be open to another perspective because they feel that’s maybe an attack on their malehood, which really that’s just an attack on the socialization they went through.

Gottman says the problem is that even the most thoughtful, progressive, egalitarian men aren’t aware of their tendency to resist influence. He says… this is for men, this is John talking. “Our training is too precise, and the rewards are too tempting. Even when we commit to emotional intelligence and availability, we’re evolutionarily prone to protect our sense of safety and pride, so what’s to be done?” Well, I’m going to outline for you what the Gottmans say needs to be done with this resistance to accepting influence. So the first step is a careful inventory of your conflict style. This is where your awareness of your capacity for one or more of the four horsemen will come in handy. When we cannot receive influence, it usually manifests through stonewalling, contempt, criticism, or defensiveness. The use of these behaviors communicates that your commitment to winning is stronger than your commitment to your partner. Now a second step is to commit to making accept influence part of your initial contract in the marriage. So as pre-marrieds and newlyweds, the notion of commitment is largely untested or at least it’s not as tested as it will be. He says you will set yourself up for success by committing first to personal accountability. With that commitment established, you can invest in more complex conflict management strategies to help you navigate the relationship. The reality is that 5 or 10 or 50 years from now, you’re not going to look very much like you do now. It’s not just that your hair will be greyer—you will have changed the way you think about money and politics and personal relationships. Ideally, you will become wiser, kinder, more generous, but this will not happen naturally. It will happen through testing. So this is where that conflict in marriage provides opportunities for growth and connection. Gottman goes on to say the test may say the form of addiction, bankruptcy, cancer, or threat of divorce. You may be tested with an inability to have children. You will definitely be tested by actually having children. You will be on opposite sides of these and many other issues throughout the lifespan of your relationship. If you do not allow yourself to influence one another, the test will win and your relationship will lose. By making accepting influence part of your initial contract or if you’re already married for quite some time, making a part of the contract now, you can achieve mastery over your test together. The best way to do this is to adopt the notion of yield to win. He says remember if one of you is winning, then both partners are losing. The notion of yield to win suggests that perhaps both partners, and thus the relationship, can win by yielding or by accepting influence. So pay attention to your conflict patterns over the next few weeks. Pay attention to both your natural inclinations and what you actually say. Do you escalate? How? Why? What if you didn’t? Why not? Dr. Gottman suggests actively looking for the parts of your partner’s point of view that make sense to you. We talked about this when I mentioned like write these down. That helps our brain focus on and really be present for what they’re saying if we’re having to write down. In this way, you can begin the yield to win process by identifying and empathizing with your partner’s point of view. You’re more likely to find a solution that honors both partners. That’s the secret. How do we honor both of us in this relationship? Accepting your partner’s influence is actually a pretty great strategy for gaining more respect, more power, and more influence. Dr. Gottman has observed the wives of men who accept their influence are far less likely to be harsh with their husbands when broaching a difficult marital topic. This means that the relationship is winning and that you’ll both be more inclined to honor and respect each other as the relationship matures. So often he also says too women are more likely to be critical and use that in the four horsemen, but when a wife knows that her influence will be accepted by her husband and not met with resistance, her criticism in bringing up difficult marital conversations actually decreases, so when both people in the relationship are able to allow themselves to be influenced by their partner, they take a significant step in moving their relationship forward toward greater happiness and satisfaction, while becoming more mature and secure in the process.