The “Four Horsemen” is a Biblical term, which is sometimes used in our modern day vernacular to mean something destructive.
In divorce and family law cases, one of the greatest challenges we face in negotiations is that people in close relationships often treat each other less kindly during negotiations than they would if they were negotiating with complete strangers. Why? Because emotions are involved. The Greater Good Science Center is an institute at Berkeley University uses science to study how people can be happier. One of their recent articles was called “How to Avoid The Four Horsemen in Relationships.” Dr. John Gottman of The Gottman Institute, talked about these Four Horsemen in Relationships and offered Antidotes for dealing with the Four Horsemen. The diagrams set out below, adapted by Joanne B. Kim, MFT Intern, give a clear illustration of these destructive reactions and Dr. Gottman’s Antidotes for trying to tame those negative reactions.
Understanding these “Four Horsemen” is particularly helpful for couples engaged in a divorce. Once you are in litigation (court-overseen divorce), it is very difficult to use these tools because you are no longer in control of your divorce, and the rules of the game of litigation are to say the most hurtful and destructive things you can to try to “win.” But if your goals include protecting your children and your other relationships from the divorce, protecting your privacy, and preserving your estate to participate, you are probably a good candidate for a Collaborative Divorce. In the Collaborative Divorce process, these tools can be used to constructively resolve your case. And if you are not yet involved in a divorce, these tools are extraordinarily helpful, especially when working with a counselor, to improve your relationship and hopefully avoid ever having to be involved in a divorce. Here they are:
The Four Horsemen
Some forms of criticism are constructive, but in this case criticism refers to making negative judgments or proclamations about your partner in extreme, absolute terms. A sign that you may be engaging in this more harmful form of criticism is if you catch yourself using terms like “never” and always” — for example, “You never think about anyone but yourself!” or, “You are always so stubborn!”
Note that criticism itself is not necessarily a recipe for relationship failure — the problem with criticism is that excessive or extreme criticism can, over time, lead to the more destructive “horsemen.”
Constructive alternative: There’s nothing wrong with voicing concerns and complaints in a relationship, but try to do so in a way that focuses on your own feelings (and how your partner’s behavior affects you) — for instance, by making “I” statements, like “I feel lonely when you come home late for dinner” — and mentions specific negative behaviors rather than making global attacks on his or her entire personality (“I feel neglected when you make plans without me” rather than “You are so inconsiderate!”). See the Active Listening practice for more suggestions along these lines.
Contempt is a more destructive form of criticism that involves treating your partner with disrespect, disgust, condescension, or ridicule. It may involve mean-spirited sarcasm, mockery, eye-rolling, sneering, or name-calling. Contempt can grow over time when a person focuses on the qualities they dislike in their partner and builds up these qualities in their mind.
Constructive alternative: Instead of keeping score of all of your partner’s flaws, consider their positive qualities and the things you appreciate most about them. In fact, it may help to write a list of these qualities and return to it when you need a reminder.
Defensiveness tends to arise when people feel criticized or attacked; it involves making excuses to avoid taking responsibility, or even deflecting blame onto your partner. If you hear yourself saying “I didn’t do anything wrong,” or blaming your partner for something else after he or she has leveled a complaint against you, ask yourself whether this is really the case. Even if your partner made some mistakes, that doesn’t free you from responsibility for things you could have done differently as well. The problem with defensiveness is that it communicates to your partner that you aren’t really listening to her or taking his concerns seriously. And by introducing new grievances, it can also exacerbate the conflict by making your partner feel attacked and defensive.
Constructive alternative: Take the time to hear your partner out and take responsibility when appropriate. A simple, genuine apology can go a long way.
Stonewalling involves putting up a (metaphorical) wall between you and your partner by withdrawing, shutting down, and physically and emotionally distancing yourself from your partner. An example of stonewalling is to give your partner the “silent treatment” or to abruptly leave without telling your partner where you’re going. Stonewalling can sometimes result when the first three “horsemen” accumulate and become overwhelming. Stonewalling is especially destructive to relationships because it can make one’s partner feel abandoned and rejected.
Constructive alternative: If you need time out to take a few deep breaths and collect your thoughts, let your partner know, and then return to the conversation when you’re ready. This way, your partner will understand that you are taking care of yourself, not trying to reject him.
While you may not feel that your spouse is a good candidate for a Collaborative Divorce, let me urge you to talk with a trained and experienced (with a number of successfully resolved Collaborative Divorce cases). With a trained and experienced Collaborative Divorce team, most cases can successfully be resolved without the destructiveness of a litigated case.