When you hear the phrase “four horsemen,” you may think of the biblical horsemen of the apocalypse. In the story, four different horses symbolize the end of times by bringing about war, famine, a plague, and conquest.
As it turns out, this metaphor holds up while talking about relationships, too. While the four horsemen of relationships don’t represent an apocalypse, they do represent four communication styles that will easily bring about the end of a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Let’s take a closer look at these horsemen and learn why they can be so destructive in relationships.
1. The First Horseman: Criticism
There is a difference between constructive and destructive criticism, and many people struggle to distinguish them in a relationship. No relationship is perfect, and you and your partner are going to do things that the other doesn’t like. It’s okay to offer a constructive critique to help your partner improve a bad habit. However, once you start attacking your partner as a person, you are no longer being constructive.
Let’s take a look at an example. Your partner hasn’t been taking care of themselves lately, and you’re concerned. They’ve been neglecting their hygiene and possibly seem depressed. If you were to offer a constructive critique, you may say something like this: “I’ve noticed that you’ve been struggling lately, and I am worried about you. Let’s go for a walk, and afterward, you can take a shower. Then, we can work on doing laundry and cleaning up your room.” A criticism, on the other hand, might look something like this: “You never take care of yourself, and there’s no excuse for it. I don’t care if you’ve been struggling; you need to stop being lazy and get your life together.”
2. The Second Horseman: Contempt
Next up is contempt. When you treat someone with contempt, you might roll your eyes, scoff, or belittle their feelings. You might also mock or ridicule them, trying to be as demeaning as possible.
As you can imagine, contempt is damaging to a relationship. It’s not helpful to aim to belittle or demean your partner. Sometimes we say cruel things in the heat of the moment but feel bad about it later. If you’re saying cruel things all the time, however, you may be acting out of contempt.
3. The Third Horseman: Defensiveness
We all get defensive sometimes, especially when we feel like we’re under attack. It’s a normal reaction at times, but it doesn’t need to be a go-to. If your partner asks a question and you immediately get defensive, you may want to reevaluate why your gut reaction is to snap at them.
Defensiveness creates an issue in relationships because it almost always escalates an argument further. If your partner is trying to have a genuine conversation, defensiveness will only make them more frustrated. When you get defensive, you’re essentially trying to shift blame to your partner. While they may be in the wrong sometimes, you’re in the wrong sometimes, too.
4. The Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling
As criticism, contempt, and defensiveness build up in a relationship, you may finally reach the stage of stonewalling. When you stonewall your partner, you essentially shut down and refuse to engage any further. Sometimes, stonewalling seems like the only option, especially if your partner berates you with unnecessary criticisms or cruel comments. Unfortunately, stonewalling may become a habit, therefore making communication impossible in your relationship.
Because the four horsemen revolve around negativity, it’s easy to see how they might trample your relationship. Maybe you’ve used one or more of these communication styles in the past, or maybe your partner has. As you move forward, be conscious of the way you talk to your partner. Though you may not realize it, these communication styles are detrimental and do not have a place in a healthy relationship. By focusing on more healthy ways of communicating, you and your partner can bring back some positivity and productivity to your relationship.