How to Avoid The Four Horsemen of Toxic Relationships

Four Horsemen of Toxic Relationships

How to Avoid The Four Horsemen of Toxic Relationships

Four Horsemen of Toxic Relationships

Let’s face it. Relationships can be tough. To successfully navigate and support a long-term relationship, you need more than love alone. You need tools that help you know how to keep your relationship alive and thriving.

One tool that can help is knowing the four horsemen of toxic relationships and how to resolve them.

What Are the Four Horsemen of Toxic Relationships?

The four horsemen of toxic relationships is a concept created by John Gottman. After studying more than 2,000 couples over two decades, the relationship expert identified four factors that often lead to the downfall of marriages. They are:

  • Criticism
  • Contempt
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling

Gottman found that these four attitudes were often the cause of problems in relationships and that when these problems were resolved, couples were far more likely to find more love and happiness together.

If you want to build a stronger foundation in your relationship, here is what you need to know about the four horsemen of toxic relationships and how to avoid them.

#1) Criticism

Criticism is what happens when one partner attacks the other person’s character. It’s important to understand the difference between criticism and sharing a complaint or concern.

Criticism is a personal attack that puts blame on one partner. It employs critical language and often uses the word “you.” It sounds like:

  • You are lazy. 
  • You are selfish.
  • You never listen to me. 

To say that you shouldn’t criticize your partner doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t share concerns with your partner. It’s important to talk about what is bothering you. But, it’s important to do it in the right way.

How to Resolve Criticism: The Gentle Start-Up

To avoid criticizing each other, use a “gentle start-up.” A gentle start-up is a way to open a difficult conversation with language and an approach that is soft and free of criticism.

If you have a legitimate complaint with your partner, you need to share it. But, don’t do it in a way that uses critical language that will quickly turn into defensiveness from your partner. Use “I” phrasing and explain what is bothering you about the situation, not what is bothering you about the person. Such as, I feel bad when I think you aren’t listening to me.

#2) Contempt

Contempt is what happens when one partner no longer respects the other and engages in behavior that is condescending, sarcastic, disrespectful, and mean. Gottman calls contempt the worst of the four horsemen of toxic relationships. Through his research, he has found it to be the number one predictor of divorce.

Couples that have contempt for one another may act like they are better than their partner. They might say and do things like:

  • Roll their eyes
  • When will you ever learn? 
  • Make jokes at their partner’s expense
  • How could you be so stupid?
  • Intentionally push their partner’s emotional triggers

It’s important to stop contempt as soon as it starts as it can quickly compound.

How to Resolve Contempt: Build a Culture of Appreciation and Respect

The way to stop contempt from breeding is to build a culture of appreciation and respect in your relationship. When you frame your relationship from a positive perspective, it will be easier to appreciate each other.

Focus on validating your partner, showing respect, and sharing five times more positive feedback than negative.

Related: Communicate Better With Your Partner in 7 Steps

#3) Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a destructive form of self-protection that can occur during an argument or disagreement. One partner becomes defensive when they feel they are being attacked. They respond by offering excuses, placing blame on the other party, positioning themselves as an innocent victim, or otherwise refusing to listen to the other person and accept any responsibility.

Defensiveness can be a response to a conversation that includes a healthy complaint. It can also be a response to unfair criticism. Either way, defensiveness is not productive, and it can steer the conversation away from the original concern and redirect it into another argument.

How to Resolve Defensiveness: Take Responsibility

The antidote to being defensive is taking responsibility. If your partner comes to you and expresses a concern in a healthy way, you should consider your role in the situation. Take a step back and observe the situation from your partner’s perspective and see if you have a behavioral blind spot that is making it difficult for you to accept some responsibility.

Taking responsibility doesn’t mean accepting all of the blame for a conflict. It means that you should accept your role in the situation and how you may have contributed to the disagreement.

#4) Stonewalling

Stonewalling is when one partner shuts down and walks away from an argument. Stonewalling is often a response to other four horsemen of toxic relationships. When one partner feels they have had enough, they choose to block out the other person rather than work on and resolve outstanding issues and concerns.

When one partner begins stonewalling the other, they may have a physical reaction to the situation that causes them to retreat. They may be physiologically flooded and experience an increase in heart rate and release of stress hormones. They are physically in a state that makes it almost impossible to carry on the conversation in a productive way.

How to Resolve Stonewalling: Physiological Self-Soothing

Stonewalling happens because one partner needs a break. There is no problem in needing a break — if it is properly communicated. In stonewalling, one partner walks away in anger, leaving the conversation in an ambiguous limbo.

The way to resolve this is to pause the conversation in a healthy way. Acknowledge that you are experiencing a physical reaction to the conversation, and tell the other person that you need time to calm down. Then, take time to self-soothe and bring your body back to a calm state before returning to the conversation.

Related: What Is Love & How Can You Keep It Alive?

Resolve The Four Horsemen of Toxic Relationships

Being aware of the four horsemen of toxic relationships is step one in avoiding the pitfalls that can breakdown your partnership.

When you can identify that you or your partner are engaging in behaviors that fit into one of these categories, you can hit the breaks. You can see what is happening and what damage will occur if you continue with the behavior. And, you can make a conscious decision to stop.

Problems will arise in every relationship. The key to getting through the problem is having tools that help you successfully navigate challenges when they arise. Knowing the four horsemen of toxic relationships is one tool that can help you be equipped to deal with bumps in your relationships.

But, don’t stop here.

If you are interested in learning more about how to build a lasting, loving relationship, see how you can get the tools you need through couples counseling.

There are many other tools and strategies that couples can use to both prevent problems and resolve problems in your relationship. Even if your relationship is strong, knowing these methods can help you if and when the time comes that you need to use them. Download our free Couples Counseling Welcome Packet to learn more.

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