Understanding the Four Horsemen to Improve Communication


If you could see into the future, and know what destroyed your relationship, would you want to look?


Of course you would. Maybe you could stop it from happening, or maybe it has already started to come apart? Don’t worry it’s not too late. We can remedy this. 


The four horsemen are a metaphor for the four communication styles that predict the end of a relationship. They are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.


This metaphor comes from the four horsemen of the apocalypse predicting the end of times in the New Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death. So, the four communication styles we are going to discuss have been compared to conquest, war, hunger, and death… these horsemen are powerful. 


Identifying the Four Horsemen 

Before you can do anything about these horsemen you have to be able to recognize them. They may already be around and you just haven’t realized. They can gallop in quietly and then cause a lot of damage once they are there. 



Criticism slides in there completely unnoticed sometimes. He is a sly man. Sometimes criticism is confused with complaints. You may offer a critique or voice a complaint about your partner’s action. This is different from going after your partner’s character or personality with criticism. 


Complaint: I am confused because you didn’t take out the garbage when we agreed you would take out the garbage. 


Criticism: You never think about anyone other than yourself. You are selfish, how hard is it to take out the garbage? 


You may think you are saying the same thing with both of these, but you are not. The criticism is an attack on a person. Saying something negative about who they are (You never think… you are selfish). The complaint addresses a specific action of the person, and not who the person is. 


Criticism leaves someone feeling hurt, rejected, and attacked. This paves the way for horseman number two: contempt. 



Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. Yeah, this guy is not good. Contempt can show up in many different ways. Disrespect, hostile humor, mocking with sarcasm, ridiculing, mimicking, name-calling, or eye-rolling. 


Contempt assumes a position of superiority over the other partner. Contempt is fueled by long term criticism that brews negative thoughts about each other. 


Have you ever said something and then the other person mimics what you said in a sarcastic or condescending voice? That is contempt. They are communicating that they are better than you. 



Defensiveness is a response to criticism. When someone feels unfairly accused they will search for excuses to play the innocent victim so that their partner will back off. This doesn’t work. The excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take their concerns seriously, and we won’t take responsibility for what happened. 


Let’s go back to the taking out the trash example. There are two ways the accused partner could respond. 


Defensive response: I had to work late, I was so hungry. Why couldn’t you take it out? Can’t you see how stressed I am? 


Not defensive response: You know you’re right we did agree I will take the garbage out. I will do that now, I’m sorry. 


Sometimes with defensive responses, there is reverse blaming. Where the person feels so attacked that they must attack back to defend themselves. Defensiveness is a way to blame your partner, and avoid taking responsibility for your actions. 



Stonewalling gallops in as a response to contempt. This is when one partner withdraws and shuts down. They stop responding to their partner. 


This can show up in different ways. Sometimes they are flat out refusing to talk but other times they will appear too busy or obsess over distracting behaviors. Maybe they will stay at work to avoid talking. They might play video games or fix the car. This is a result of feeling physiologically flooded. Whatever they are doing, they are unavailable to their partner. 


Remedies to Save Your Marriage from the Four Horsemen 

So now you know that you have seen these guys before. I think we have all seen these guys before. Now we will arm ourselves with the remedies that are stronger than these horsemen. These are the best ways to improve your communication in marriage building a relationship that lasts. 

Gentle Start-Ups

Gentle start-ups are the remedy for criticism. This is where you calmly start the communication, making sure not to play the blame game. Instead address your own feelings and needs. This post I did on I-statements will definitely be helpful to master the gentle start-ups. 


The goal is to take the criticism that is in your mind, and find the request or need behind it. 


Not gentle: You were out all night without me again? You didn’t even think of me. You are so rude you didn’t even call. 


This person is hurt. That hurt is bringing out this harsher side of criticism. 


Gentle: I missed you tonight. I would love it if we spent more time together. 


The gentle response is much more likely to get a productive conversation to follow. See how we just dismantled that criticism? You can do this. 


Build a Culture of Appreciation 

Building a culture of appreciation acts as a powerful buffer for negativity. This is the remedy for contempt. You can do this by regularly expressing appreciation for your partner. Showing gratitude, affection, and respect. 


This creates a positive story of your relationship and keeps your partner in a warm view. This builds a wall to keep out the negativity that creates contempt. 


You can rewrite your inner script. Be aware of any stories that you tell yourself that paint victimhood or righteous indignation.


Take Responsibility 

Taking responsibility for your role in the conflict is the remedy for defensiveness. You can do this by using active listening. When your partner is voicing a complaint or even criticizing, you can listen and try to find what makes sense about what they said, and repeat that. 


You need to make sure you are hearing correctly. The criticism is going to be pulling at you to defend, so you need to find what is really being said, so you can acknowledge it, and respect it. 


Just because your partner doesn’t say their part right, doesn’t mean you can’t remedy it by admitting your role in the problem. Going back to our previous example, let’s say the partner did not use a soft start-up.


Partner: I can’t believe you went out without me again, how can you be so selfish to not even think of me?


Now, this is making you mad, she is criticizing. There’s that horseman. Now you have a choice here to open the gate for another horseman, or you can remedy it. 


You: I am sorry that I went out without you. I will communicate better next time before I go so that we are on the same page. Do you want to spend time together tonight? 


Good choice. 


Physiological Self-Soothing 

When someone stonewalls, they are under a lot of emotional pressure. Their heart rate increases and stress hormones are released into the bloodstream. They may have triggered a flight or fight response. Physiological self-soothing is the remedy for stonewalling. 


Taking 20 minutes to calm down can bring a tough conversation back down to being manageable. Taking the time to self soothe and calm down allows you to return to the conversation in a more respectful way. You’ll be ready to close any gates those horsemen like to barge in through. 


The partner who is stonewalling will feel better if they can address the fears they have around communicating openly with their partner. What do you think will happen if you openly express your thoughts and feelings? Talk about it with your partner. 


Now you are getting the idea that these horsemen are friends. They like to run around together and play off of each other’s antics. This is why once you see one horseman in a conversation you have to really get these remedies out there quickly so that more gates aren’t opened. 


You need to be actively reinforcing these remedies in order to keep the horsemen away. Practice, practice, practice. The more you do it, the more your partner will do it, and the stronger communication you will have. Leaving you with a relationship that lasts. 

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