You’ve identified the Four Horsemen present in your relationship, so now what?
Fortunately, each of the Horseman have an antidote to counteract the negative communication styles!
It is important to emphasize that conflict in relationships is normal. In fact, conflict is a natural process with functional aspects that allow room for growth and mutual understanding. Given this, the goal is not to put an end to all conflict in your relationship, but instead learn how to manage this conflict in a healthy and effective way.
In terms of the Four Horsemen, the starting point is to identify these negative communication patterns in conflict discussions between you and your partner(s). If the Horsemen are not recognized and addressed, there is an increased risk of relationship dissatisfaction and/or endings.
To better manage conflict and reduce the risk of separation, you can find a list of effective antidotes for each Horseman and some guidance on how to use them below.
The antidote to criticism
Criticism is more than just complaints; it is an attack on the person’s inner character. The antidote to criticism is to avoid placing the blame on your partner and using a “gentle start-up”. Specifically, the antidote to criticism is to talk about your feelings using “I” statements. Beginning with “I” instead of “you” helps remove the blame from your partner and allows your needs to be expressed in a positive way.
To do this, you can start by asking yourself: What do I feel? What do I need?
Criticism:” You always cut me off when I’m talking to you. How can you be so ignorant and selfish?”
Antidote: “I feel unheard tonight and I really need to vent. Can we please discuss what’s on my mind?”
You can see that there is neither blame nor criticism in this antidote, which prevents the conflict from worsening. Instead, using statements such as “I feel” and “I need” allows for a mutually respectful discussion and the fulfillment of each partner’s individual needs.
Antidote to contempt
Appreciation and Respect
Contempt is referred to as the deadliest Horseman as it the greatest predictor of divorce. Contempt is destructive and defeating – which is why it should be avoided.
Building a culture of appreciation and respect in your relationship is the biggest and best antidote for contempt. Essentially, regularly expressing appreciation and gratitude for your partner – especially for the small things – will help create a positive frame of mind in your relationship.
This increase of appreciation, gratitude, and respect will help mitigate negative feelings overall, thus reducing the frequency of feelings and expressions of contempt.
Contempt: “You forgot to take out the garbage last night, again!? Ugh. You are seriously so forgetful and useless.” *Rolls Eyes*
Antidote: “I know you’ve been swamped with work these past few weeks, but could you please remember to take out the garbage when I’m working late? I would really appreciate it.”
The key to this antidote is the initial expression of understanding and acknowledgement. There is also no criticism of the partner’s character or a sense of moral superiority – instead there is recognition that this was an honest mistake and not a result of laziness or spite.
This antidote works so well because it includes a respectful request and ends with appreciation!
the antidote to defensiveness
Gottman defines defensiveness as a form of self-protection from righteous indignation. When criticism occurs, most people naturally respond with defensiveness. Unfortunately, being defensive never solves the problem – it adds to it.
Defensiveness is a way of putting the blame on your partner. It’s really saying, “I’m not the problem, you are”. Instead of solving the problem, this continues to escalate the conflict.
The antidote to defensiveness is to accept responsibility – even if for only part of the problem.
Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault that we’re going to be late. It’s your fault since we can never leave early. You take forever to get ready.”
Antidote: “I don’t like being late, but you’re right. We don’t always have to leave early and be the first ones there. I can be more flexible.”
This antidote takes responsibility for part of the problem and prevents the conflict from escalating by acknowledging the roles each partner has in the conflict. By doing this, the couple can work towards a compromise in a healthy and respectful manner.
Antidote to stonewalling
Stonewalling is when an individual completely shuts down during a conflict discussion, withdraws themselves, and no longer responds to their partner. This disengagement and withdrawal typically occurs as a response to feeling emotionally flooded or overwhelmed. This sense of emotional pressure actually has physiological effects, such as increased heart and a release of stress hormones into the bloodstream.
When conducting research, The Gottman Institute found that couples who took a 30-minute break to read and “cool off” while in a conflict discussion had lower heart rates and a more positive and productive interaction once they resumed their conversation.
This outcome was a result of physiological soothing. By reading and taking time away from the discussion, both partners were able to calm themselves down and return to the discussion in a much more respectful manner.
Therefore, the antidote to stonewalling is to stop the conflict discussion and call a timeout when needed:
Conflict Discussion: “Look, we have had this conversation a million times and I am sick and tired of repeating myself. You need to learn—”
Antidote: “Darling, I apologize for interrupting you, but I am feeling overwhelmed and I need to pause for a moment. Can you give me 20 minutes and then we can continue our discussion?”
Without this break, the individual would have ended up stonewalling, withholding their emotions, or blowing up on their partner (all of which are never any good!)
It is important that this break is at least 20 minutes long – as that is how long it takes your body to physiologically calm down. During this time of physiological self-soothing, it is important to avoid thoughts of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood. Instead, spend this time distracting yourself with something soothing – such as listening to music, reading, or going for a walk.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it helps you calm down.
Time to put the antidotes into action!
Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with the Four Horsemen and how to curb them, you have the essential skills to manage conflict in a healthy way. As soon as you see one of Horsemen trotting their way into your relationship, remember these antidotes. Be attentive and mindful. The more you can identify and counteract these negative communication patterns – the greater your likelihood of having a stable and happy relationship!
- Vanessa Russo (MACP Candidate, Psychotherapy Intern)
Vanessa Russo, MACP Candidate, RP (Qualifying)