One of the most helpful tools I have found in my work with couples is what John Gottman calls the “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” The reference comes from John the Apostle’s vision of four horsemen representing death, famine, war and conquest (Revelation 6).
The Gottman Institute–founded by John and Julie Gottman–coined this analogy to describe what happens when couples descend into destructive patterns of communication. Having worked with couples for most of my adult life and 20 years as a therapist, the Gottmans hit the nail on the head regarding miscommunication between partners.
I have sat through more intake sessions than I care to remember where the couple brought their relational war into the therapy room. With it one could hear the death rattle of the marriage.
The famine of intimacy and connection were often seen in the anger toward each other. And, of course, the loud shouting, which is often the sound of a couple’s war, followed by the attempt to conquer and win the argument. However, loss piles on top of loss.
Sometimes couples just give up while others turn to a therapist. Often, couples enter therapy for help with their marriage and with the complaint, “We need help in communication.”
Actually, I often point out to them that they are communicating quite well. The problem is they are communicating the wrong things and not communicating the right things.
Here, the Gottman Institute helps us get our communication back on track. Based on their more than 50 years of marriage research, John and Julie Gottman have identified four marriage killers, which have been labeled “The Four Horsemen.” Taken from the imagery of the book of Revelation, these four horsemen are heralds of doom and destruction.
So, what are those dangerous, destructive, styles of communication?
First, there is criticism. A communication style characterized by criticism is a withering exchange. The partner internalizes, “I never do anything or never do anything right.” It is not a great way to facilitate communication.
Next, there is defensiveness. Defensiveness is the natural response for most of us to criticism. We all get defensive.
Defensiveness always gives me two mental pictures. The first is a person who is naked having been stripped of all clothing, and second a frantic but unsuccessful attempt to cover one’s shame.
Defensiveness literally has us running for cover either emotionally or mentally. It activates a response that is unhelpful and does not move the issue along to a solution.
The third communication style is condescension. Condescension is most often a deal breaker in any communication whether it is partners, employees, friends or family.
Condescension could be experienced as “being talked down to” or treated as if “one is stupid.” Neither is a great component of a helpful conversation.
The last is stonewalling. When this happens, one of the partners shuts down, leaves the conversation or the room.
Stonewalling is most often a protective response because we feel unsafe or unheard. So, we shut down. So many of the couples I’ve worked with acknowledge they either stonewall or they recognize it in their partner.
When one adds all these together, real communication resulting in understanding and resolution happens rarely. What does happen is hurtful, painful, isolating and discouraging.
So, how can couples change their ways of communication? Perhaps by first recognizing their communication style is not working.
Second, take personal responsibility for using any of these communication styles. It’s not helpful if you police your partner and label their style. However, it is helpful if you make sure you refrain from criticism, defensiveness, condescension and stonewalling.
Third, shift the focus to understanding what your partner is saying and make sure you understand their concern, their emotions and their desire to better connect.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Find a counselor who can help you communicate better.
It will be the best and most rewarding effort you will ever make.
A private practice counselor working with veterans and survivors of trauma. Previously, Chancellor served four churches in Texas for 33 years, then ran a Mental Health Department of Alan B. Polunsky Maximum Security prison which houses death row.