The Four Horsemen: Destroyer of Relationships

Have you ever gotten frustrated in your relationships with your loved ones? You're trying to get through to the other person - be it your partner, friend, or family member - but somehow something gets in the way. Attempts to connect seem to drive you further apart from each other; even though you love them deeply, the other party does not seem to get the memo.

Marriage Expert John Gottman sheds light on four patterns in frustrated relationships that seem to foster disconnection, not connection. These patterns are named, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," since their persistent presence signal the end times for the relationship.

Self-Preserve, Other-ATTACK

The goal of the horsemen is to protect one's core self, to prevent one's shame button (our beliefs that we are wrong, bad, or broken) from being pushed. Here's how each horseman does this:

  • Criticism: Offense is the best defense. Attack before you get attacked.
  • Defensiveness: Dismiss the other and point the gun back on them.
  • Contempt: Hit 'em where it hurts. Make the other feel small and insignificant.
  • Stonewalling: Abandon ship. Terminate engagement.

Needless to say, each attempt to self-protect ends up slamming the other person's shame button, stirring up more fight, flight, or freeze. Each interaction ends up deepening feelings of hurt, rejection, betrayal, and abandonment.

Over time, these toxic patterns erode the bond of trust, safety, and connection, thereby creating more room for the horsemen and less room for repair. The cycle of pain continues until the rupture is so deep, they cannot remain connected, let alone be in the same room anymore.

Do these show up in your relationships? Which horseman sounds most familiar?

But there is hope

Though it is incredibly difficult to change these relationships, it is not impossible. You can replace each horseman with its respective "Antidote" to reverse the deadly cycle and bolster the relationship.

To learn about the Antidotes, click here.

To learn about couples therapy, click here.

© Copyright 2017 Joanne B. Kim. All rights reserved.

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Joanne B. Kim, AMFT

Joanne is an Associate Marriage & Family Therapist in San Jose, CA, who loves empowering individuals and couples to create emotionally thriving relationships. She fully believes that emotional health and relationship health have everything to do with each other: when one part hurts or heals, so does the other.

She holds a special place in her heart for adult survivors of emotional abuse/neglect and for high-conflict couples - those who desire deep connection, but feel stuck, anxious, and frustrated in their significant relationships.

What began as her own mission towards wholeness became a passion and calling to accompany others on their own journey to love and be loved. She loves creating a safe space for others to cultivate their curiosity and courage to explore the deeper places that hold the secret to meaningful relationships.


Further Reading

John Gottman & Nan Silver (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert.

The Gottman Institute (www.gottman.com)