By Dr Francois Hanekom, CPSC affiliate
Published in CPSC Notes No 7 February 2019
As psychologists, Drs John and Julie Gottman have been doing research about Couples Therapy for 40 years at the Washington University in Seattle, USA. The Magazine Psychology Today calls Dr John Gottman the “Einstein of Love”.
They studied many hours of video tape of couples in sessions. They observed the interactions of the partners towards each other and identified certain repetitive patterns of interaction. They named these patterns of behaviour the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, being Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.
The clinical research shows that a high frequency of these four negative interactive behaviours puts a relationship at risk. If a couple frequently uses these Four Horsemen in their interaction, it hurts their partner and relationship, as it is so toxic. These patterns are also destructive in family relationships, work relationships, racial relationships and in any friendship.
In this pattern I attack the person rather than the behaviour. I criticize my partner. For example I will accuse my partner of being “selfish”, “lazy”, or “stupid”. My partner experiences these critical remarks as emotionally wounding. The effect is destructive to our relationship.
We often see this Horseman at work when a couple is socializing with other couples. The discussion might, for example, be about the observation that the child of the one couple looks exactly like the mother. Usually the male partner of the mother of the child will respond as follows:
“Yes, our child looks like his mother. However, fortunately, his brain is normal!”
Everybody in the group will then enjoy this joke and will engage in laughing about this remark of the male partner. However, Gottman says that this is the Horseman of Contempt. It is contempt because the male partner is making a joke to the detriment of his female partner. The contempt lies in the joke with an undercover sting at the expense of my partner. The end result of the joke is that it is toxic to our relationship.
This means I refuse to own my own behaviour. For example: If my partner would approach me to talk about a behaviour of mine that is irritating to my partner, I respond in the following way:
My partner: “Please help me by picking up your dirty clothes that you left on the floor”.
My response: “Do you realize how often you are leaving the wet towel lying on the floor?”
It is clear: Instead of me taking ownership for my behaviour, I defend myself and my irritating behaviour.
When my partner and I are experiencing a difference of opinion about a certain topic, I shut down and refuse to discuss the topic any further. I close down like a tortoise and disappear underneath my “shell”. I refuse to talk with my partner for hours or even for days. This is called Stonewalling, also called sulking.
This behaviour is very toxic for any relationship be-cause it creates a complete disconnection between the two partners. To maintain a healthy relationship it is important to delete the use of these Four Horsemen in our inter-actions with each other. It is amazing that Scripture is giving us the following antidote for the Four Horsemen:
“Everyone enjoys a fitting reply; it is wonderful to say the right thing at the right time!” (Proverbs 15:23, New Living Translation – NLT)
Dr Hanekom is a Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist (EFT), a Certified Imago Couples Therapist, a Gottman Couples Therapist (Level 3), and a Life Coach and Therapist for Individuals.