Dr. John Gottman has studied relationships for many years, and found what he calls the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse to describe four behaviors and patterns couples can take part in that can cause a lot of damage to relationships. The four horseman of the apocalypse are: criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness. Let’s take a hypothetical situation in which James and Kelly are arguing and the four horseman come up. An example of criticism would be when Kelly says “You don’t work hard enough for our family, and look what happens” and then James becomes defensive and yells back “Yes, I do, you just never appreciate anything I do!” To which Kelly shows contempt towards him by rolling her eyes and starts calling him names and putting him down, attempting to make herself feel better than he is. James then recedes into the bedroom and blocks Kelly out emotionally, feeling his usual discouragement, overwhelm, and helplessness. He shuts down emotionally and locks Kelly out of the room, practicing stonewalling. If the couple was to discuss this situation in counseling together, the therapist, knowing the antidotes to the four horseman of the apocalypse, could provide education on ways to manage the conflict in a healthy manner. For example, she would recommend Gottman’s antidotes by helping the couple grow appreciation towards one another for what they do consistently, helping them to start their important conversations in a kind manner, show them how to regulate their emotions, and take ownership for their mistakes.
When coaching the couple on how to bring up a sensitive topic, she may tell Kelly to bring up financial situations by asking if it’s a good time to talk, and then focusing on how she feels about the subject, without any blame or the four horseman of the apocalypse. She may help James to take ownership of what he feels responsible for in a sensitive manner, and be able to regulate his emotions by going to practice meditation or listen to music when he feels he can’t be productive in the conversation, with an agreed up on time for returning to it. For more resources, check out the Gottman Institute’s website, and Dr. Gottman’s books.