The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is an allegory portraying the end of times in the New Testament. In it is described conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. I am going this metaphor to describe communication styles that usually predict the end of a relationship.
The First Horseman of the apocalypse is criticism. Criticizing your partner is quite different than simply offering a critique or voicing a complaint to them. The latter regard specific issues only. The former is an “ad hominem” attack. It is an attack on your partner at their core. In effect, you are demolishing his or her whole being in the moment you criticize them. Here is an example of the difference between a complaint and a criticism.
- Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”
- Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish! You never think of others! You never think of me!”
Do you see the difference? If you find that you are your partner are critical of each other, don’t assume your relationship is doomed to fail. The problem with criticism is that when it becomes pervasive, it paves the road for the other, far deadlier horsemen. It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and forces the perpetrator and victim alike to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity. When he appears too often the others won’t be far behind.
The Second Horseman is contempt. When we connect with others while in this state, we are truly mean, treating others with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridiculing them, name-calling, mimicking them. I also include body language such as eye-rolling in this group. The target of contempt soon begins to feel despised and worthless.
“You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river.” I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic computer games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid; try to be more pathetic…”
Research indicates that couples contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (e.g., colds, the flu, etc.) than others. Feelings like contempt cause your immune system to weaken. Contempt is most often powered by long-simmering negative thoughts about a partner. The thoughts can come to a head, with the offender attacking the accused from a position of superiority. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce according to some researchers. If you can’t eliminate contempt, you will eliminate your relationship.
The Third Horseman is defensiveness. We’ve all been defensive. This horseman is almost always ubiquitous when relationships are failing. When you feel unjustly accused, you fish for excuses so that your partner will back off. Unfortunately, this strategy is rarely successful. Your excuses simply tell your partner that you don’t take them seriously. They think you are trying to get them to buy something that they don’t believe, that you are blowing them off.
- Her: “Did you call Sally and Jim to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”
- Him: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact, you of all people know just how busy my schedule is. Why didn’t you just do it?”
He not only responds defensively, but turns the table and makes it her fault. A non-defensive response would have been:
- Him: “Crap, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. Let me call them right now.”
See the difference? Although it is perfectly understandable for the man to defend himself in the example given above, this approach doesn’t have the desired effect. In fact, it will only make things worse. The attacking spouse rarely backs down or apologizes. This is because defensiveness is really another way of blaming your partner.
The Fourth Horseman is stonewalling. Stonewalling occurs when the one of you, usually the listener, withdraws from the communication. In other words, stonewalling is when one person shuts down and closes himself/herself off from the other.
It is an intentional lack of responsiveness to your partner and the interaction between the two of you. Rather than dealing with, confronting the issues—which over time tend to accumulate—with our partner, you make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in some kind of obsessive behavior. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a habit. And as you have read in other blogs on this site, not only does a habit have to be replaced by something else, it takes weeks to effectively change.
Being able to identify The Four Horsemen in your conflicts is a super important first step to eradicating them. That being said, the knowledge alone is rarely enough. To drive away destructive communication patterns, you have to replace them with healthy, productive ones. In later blogs that will refer back to this one, I will introduce you to some simple correctives.
Practice Tip: Practice, practice, practice! Pay very close attention the next time you find yourself involved in a difficult conversation with your partner, a friend, or even with your kids. See if you can identify any of The Four Horsemen, and try to observe their effects on the people involved. I can almost guarantee you won’t like what you see.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Schedule some time and we can talk about how things are going and where you would like to go.