Man and woman lying down

Avoiding the ‘four horsemen’ in relationships

In Love, Sex and Sexuality by Nicole FeledyLeave a Comment

Strong relationships are built on effective communication, but how do we achieve this?


When relationships fail it hurts. The pain reaches your core, clutching the heart and squeezing the air from your lungs. I speak from experience, I’ve failed twice. Twice married, twice divorced, twice experienced the anguish of being with someone for ten years only to experience that sinking feeling – this just isn’t working. As I write today I’m in long term relationship number three.

From a positive perspective you could say failure is simply an opportunity to get creative and learn. After all, to use a clichéd analogy, Edison failed 99 times before having his light bulb moment. But I really didn’t want to fail at another relationship – and my current partner and I came close.

Precariously close.

Forget Mars and Venus

At times our communication was so off base it wasn’t like being from Mars and Venus, it was like we weren’t even in the same galaxy.

He spoke, I listened. But the words coming out of his mouth made no sense. I had no context for them and they fell into an abyss. I asked questions for clarification, but somehow they came out sounding judgmental or critical. My questions were so far removed from the ideas he was trying to convey that he thought I wasn’t listening.

I spoke, he listened. But the words coming out of my mouth made no sense. He had no framework for them and they fell into a chasm. He asked questions for simplification but it seemed like he was badgering or asserting control. The questions were so disconnected from my feelings that I thought he wasn’t hearing me.

These communication patterns create rifts that are difficult to mend. Maybe you’re familiar with the situation: you love your partner, you know you have a connection but your words are often misunderstood. You find yourself scrambling to be heard. Your needs are not being met and, when you’re being completely honest with yourself you know you’re not meeting your partner’s needs either. Emotional trust is stretched to its breaking point.

Communication and the ‘four horsemen’

This isn’t an unusual situation. Effective communication is one of the most important aspects of a healthy relationship, yet so often things go wrong. Communication breaks down, and if it falls prey to any of the ‘four horsemen’ (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, or stonewalling) there’s trouble. This metaphor, created by Dr John Gottman, highlights how ineffective communication signals doom in a relationship.

Obviously, it’s important to address communication issues before the horsemen ride into your home. However, knowing how to express yourself goes beyond ‘love languages’ and using ‘I’ statements. Effective communication requires trust, patience, and acceptance. You need to know how to speak your needs and you need to know how to listen to your partner’s needs.

This is easier with a shared vocabulary and just because you speak the same language doesn’t mean you use words the same way. My partner and I had coaching and found solace in a ‘language of strengths’. Rather than looking at all the ways we were failing, we looked at where we were succeeding and spoke about how we could apply what was working to what wasn’t.

Language of strengths: a new communication approach

Society conditions us to concentrate on weakness and fix what’s broken. We look to find fault and in the process often stumble over criticism and blame. However, a positive psychology approach encourages us to focus on what’s right in each other.

You may be familiar with the benefit of expressing gratitude. There’s a plethora of research suggesting regular expressions of gratitude have a cathartic effect because they release positive emotions. In terms of relationships, this can be taken a step further by appreciating each other’s strengths. You can acknowledge what you do well. This doesn’t mean ignoring what’s not working. It simply means focusing on how to use strengths to improve the situation. Part of the communication solution lies in recognising that your partner is not broken – and neither are you.

For example, my partner loves to get things started. An idea is formed and he leaps into action. I, on the other hand, like to see the big picture. I wait until I have an idea about what we’re going to do and then plan the best route. You can see the potential for disagreement. He starts, I wait. He feels like I’m holding him back, I feel like he’s leaving me behind. Until we really talked about what was going on and what we both needed, it was a quite a problem.

Today things are different. Rather than thinking that one of us must change, we realise we’re both right. I understand his sense of urgency and he understands my need for clarity. Together we look at a situation and work out how both needs can be met.

This is what a strengths-based approach to relationships provides. It’s a way of talking about natural patterns of thought, emotion, and behaviour without trying to defend your own position. The key is to appreciate that what is natural and comfortable for you may not be for your partner. When you focus on the outcome and accept your different ways of approaching a situation, you establish a platform for resourceful communication.

Understanding your strengths also gives clues about your motivations and drivers. You have words to describe what energises you and what drains you. Importantly, you also recognise the fears that trigger a toxic behaviour. Rather than criticising, being defensive, showing contempt, or stonewalling, you notice the emotions and thoughts that prompt unhelpful behaviours. When you know what they are, you can address them from an objective perspective.

Dr John Gottman’s research shows relationships are better when couples know each other and respond positively to each other’s communication attempts. The more you focus on each other’s strengths, the more grateful you’ll feel for the gifts you bring each other.

My partner and I learned each other’s strengths and in the process learned more about each other. Now when we talk, we know where the words are coming from. We have a context and a framework that builds even greater appreciation and understanding. We have a strong relationship.



The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling

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