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Center for Personal & Relationship Growth
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Beware the "Four Horsemen!"
Hello, my name is Tracey Bauer and I am a counselor in private practice specializing in marriage and couples counseling in San Antonio, Texas.

As a Marriage  and Couples Counselor, one complaint I hear from almost every couple I work with is, “We just can’t seem to communicate!”  According to John Gottman, renowned author, marriage  and relationship researcher, there are four unhealthy patterns of communication that will most certainly lead to doom and destruction in your relationship:  Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling – what Gottman calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” 

John Gottman spent over 20 years researching over 2000 couples and discovered that these four major emotional reactions, ”The Four Horsemen”– were predictive of whether a relationship would succeed or fail.  These are ways of interacting that sabotage your efforts to communicate with your partner.  The first step in eliminating the Horsemen is for you and your partner to identify when these patterns are happening.  Then, you can learn to change them.  So, let’s talk about each of the horsemen so you can learn to recognize them.

Horseman # 1 - CRITICISM:  over generalized complaints that attack your partner’s character.  Unlike complaints, Criticism tends to over generalize, and entails attacking your partner’s personality or character, rather than focusing on specific behaviors you don’t like.  We will always have some legitimate complaints but criticism feels like a personal attack.  For example, “I am disappointed that you didn’t build that shelf like you promised” is a complaint.  “Well, I see that shelf didn’t get built! I guess you obviously don’t care anything about my feelings or me!  Your precious time at the gym is much more important than me!” is a criticism.  Since the criticized person feels attacked, the next horseman is invited right on in, defensiveness.

Horseman # 2 - DEFENSIVENESS:  shielding oneself from a perceived attack and seeing oneself as the victim.  Of course, it is only natural for a person to feel defensive when they are being insulted, called names, or accused.  Defensiveness involves blocking a verbal attack and seeing yourself as the victim.  When you get defensive, you experience anxiety or a flooding of emotions, which makes it difficult for you to tune into what your partner is saying. Defensiveness also leads to escalation.  Defensiveness includes matching anger with anger, blame with blame, hardening your stance, making excuses, or denying responsibly. For example, one partner may say “You never feed the dog,” and the other partner says, “You never feed the cat.” Instead of listening to what is being said, you toss it back to your partner saying “it’s your problem,” deny responsibility, or play the victim role. Verbal examples include, “Yes, but,” “So,” “It’s not my fault,” “It wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t, etc.” Defensiveness prevents you from solving the problem at hand and further impedes communication.

Horseman #3 - CONTEMPT:  hostile words and body language aimed at psychologically abusing your partner.  Holding onto resentment inevitably leads to Contempt. Contempt is even more destructive than Criticism. Contempt involves directing hostile words and body language at your partner on purpose. These hostile words and body language are meant to psychologically harm your partner and attacks their sense of self. Contempt includes openly insulting your partner, disrespecting them, and tearing down their self-esteem.  Verbal examples of Contempt include putdowns, insults and name-calling, yelling and screaming, mocking, sarcasm, ridiculing, and hurtful teasing. Phrases like “You are such a piece of work,” “There’s something wrong with you,” “You are so selfish,” are examples of contempt. Name calling like: “lazy,” “fat,” and “stupid” are also examples.  Contempt hurts a person’s sense of self and is extremely detrimental leaving partners feeling hurt and extremely negative toward each other.

Horseman #4 - STONEWALLING:  withdrawing from the relationship in order to avoid conflict.   Stonewalling happens when a person withdraws from the other partner to avoid a fight. This can happen in the middle of a discussion, when one partner just shuts down and stops responding to their partner.  Stonewalling can also happen when you remove yourself physically without communicating to your partner.  When a person stonewalls, they are exiting the relationship and avoiding solving the problem at hand.   When a person stonewalls, they are also not listening, the conflicts become silent and withdrawing becomes a hostile act.

So, now that you know what NOT to do, what are the healthy ways to communicate?  Instead of criticizing, make an impersonal complaint without blame.  Instead of being defensive, take responsibility. Instead of contempt, foster an environment of fondness and admiration.  Instead of stonewalling, learn physiological self-soothing.

Tracey D. Bauer, M.A. LMFT
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
Center for Personal & Relationship Growth  - www.cprgnet.com

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As a marriage and couples counselor in San Antonio, TX, one of my jobs is to help couples make each other feel special and love.  Valentine's Day is a great time to do that very thing and it doesn't have to cost a lot. How about writing your significant other a good old fashioned hand written love letter.  Scent the card with your special cologne or perfume and leave it on their pillow or the seat of their car.  Your valentine will feel adored and they can add it to a box of keepsakes from you! ~ Tracey D. Bauer, M.A. LMFT | Center for Personal & Relationship Growth
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To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. ~ Lewis B. Smedes
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