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Communication Killers, Part 2: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The Four Horsemen are hostile forms of communication that put couples at high risk for divorce when these patterns take up permanent residence in the relationship.

1.  Criticism is defined as blaming, faultfinding, or using global and negative labels to attack your spouse’s character. For example, “How would you know? You’re never home,” or “My problem with you is …” A harsh startup often comes in the form of criticism.

2.  Contempt is a lack of respect for your spouse’s dignity, an attitude of looking down on your spouse as unworthy. Forms of contempt include name-calling, put-downs, sarcasm, cynicism, swearing at each other, rolling of the eyes, mockery or hostile humor. Contempt is demeaning and conveys not just disapproval of your spouse’s behavior, but disgust with who your spouse is. While the other three horsemen show up in small amounts in most marriages, contempt is only found in toxic relationships. This horseman also includes belligerence, which is an aggressive and angry provocation or threat.

3.  Defensiveness is a way of turning back a perceived attack. Someone who is defensive denies their spouse’s statements, refuses to admit their role in problems, avoids responsibility for how they impact their spouse, or deflects their spouse’s complaints back onto the other person. Defensiveness is destructive because it escalates tension and creates an adversarial interaction.

4.  Stonewalling usually occurs as a result of escalating criticism, contempt and defensiveness as emotional overload becomes intense. Spouses who stonewall stubbornly refuse to give any verbal or nonverbal feedback that they are listening or attending to what their spouse is saying. Often they just get up and leave the room. It’s like talking to a stone wall. Stonewalling is best seen as a containment strategy that spouses use to avoid further escalation of the conflict. The problem is that the stonewaller does not just avoid the fight, but avoids his spouse and the relationship as well. According to John Gottman’s research, 85% of stonewallers are men.

Discussion Questions: Share with your spouse how anger was handled in your childhood home.

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