How to Avoid the Four Horsemen (With Examples)

Gottman’s Four Horsemen, namely Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling, are arguably the most accurate predictors of divorce. Dr. Julie Gottman was able to predict with over 90 percent accuracy whether or not the couples he studied would get divorced within six years.

How do you avoid four horsemen? The key to avoiding the four horsemen is to be aware of your blind spot and adjust your language accordingly during daily interaction. After all, the person you're within a partnership with is essentially someone whose interests you’ve agreed to take on like yours, and whose feelings you should always consider without hurting the person.

Even a relationship expert shared about wearing a ridiculous-looking costume every time she gets annoyed to lighten the mood first, before discussing seriously.

Besides that, let’s explore ways we can circumvent the four horsemen with constructive behaviors during daily interactions:

Check the Timing Is Suitable

Before starting a chat, check-in with your partner. It’s likely the person may get concerned, and allow you to open the chat. 

“Is this a good time to raise something that has been bothering me?”

Ditch the Text To Prevent Misunderstanding

Anyone who has been in a relationship can probably attest to this – Texts give the perfect platform for the worst misunderstanding to occur, making it a destructive form of communication. If you can help it, leave the chats to a face-to-face (unless of course, you’re in a long-distance relationship, of which do a video call!). 

If the argument has already occurred over text, be the first to break the chain and say,

“Can I call you? It’s easier to talk, and I don’t wish for further misunderstandings to occur. Let’s clear the air, and win together.”

Mind Your Non-Verbal Cues

Non-verbal cues are just as important, if not more, than verbal cues – Your tone, and body language, are all clues your partner will probably pick up and register before hearing what you’ve to say. 

As much as possible, start with a gentle tone. Face your partner to convey openness and respect, which will allow your partner to reciprocate in kind.

Avoid Blaming Or Attacking Words

Words are powerful, and some, in particular, might ignite the fire more than it diminishes in a tense situation. Avoid saying “you”, “always”, and “never”, words that would potentially make your partner feel like he/she has been blamed or defeated.

Treat your partner with disrespect or extreme criticism and they will counter-attack with negative reactions and become defensive.

Share Your Feelings & Give the Benefit of Doubt

Sharing how you feel is a great way to connect two people, and also allow your partner to understand your point of view.

For example, “When we go out and bump into people on the streets and you do not introduce me, it makes me feel unimportant. I know you probably don’t mean to though.”

Note how the focus is on the action versus the person, thus making it less personal. It is in no way a character flaw of the person because if it comes across that way, it’s likely the other party may get defensive quickly.

Also, giving the benefit of the doubt goes a long way in successful relationships. You’re demonstrating that you always do assume and think the best of that person, and don’t we all just want someone to be our greatest supporter?

Table A Solution

If there’s a simple solution to the situation, table it in the same breath. 

Riding on the same example earlier where one party was not introduced to the other’s friends, a solution can be as simple as, “Could you introduce me the next time that happens? That will be nice.”

The Dark Side & How to De-escalate 

Let’s explore the possible scenario where things escalated quickly in a particular argument, and you’ve noticed your partner and/or yourself already falling into the trap of demonstrating any of the Four Horsemen. Now, what do you do?

Throw Out a Repair Attempt 

This is one of my favorites because it’s an incredibly quick and effective circuit breaker (IF your partner recognizes it as such a well). 

The idea is basically to break the mounting tension at that moment.

What can Repair Attempts look like?

  • Crack A Joke 

If your partner shares the same sense of humor, this one’s great. At that moment, even if the joke is lame, it might cause both of you to laugh and allow a reset. 

  • Reach For a Hug

If you and/or your partner value physical touch, this is perfect, though approach with caution, as some people might pull away and react negatively at the moment when unprepared, and that might in turn cause more hurt to you. Before you approach, perhaps ask, “This has been stressful. Can we hug it out, just for a bit?” 

  • Make Silly Faces

This sounds literally like what the word suggests – It’s very silly, possibly childish, but could be as effective. All of us have an inner child within. Appeal to their inner child. Make silly faces to make them laugh, and the second they do, tension will break.

  • Put On a Ridiculous-looking Costume (Advised By A Therapist)

Someone once told me this story of how this woman had anger management issues, and her husband brought her to see a therapist as it was putting a strain on their marriage and kids.

The therapist suggested she wear a ridiculous-looking costume every time she gets annoyed. As unorthodox as that sounded, she agreed to give it a try. The next time this happened, she angrily put on the costume and stormed out of the room to continue yelling. What ensued though, was that after the family saw that, everyone burst out laughing, and eventually, so did she. This completely lightened the mood after, and she was able to then communicate her point gently, to a more receptive audience.

Now, of course, the above helps if you and/or your partner remain in contact. If your partner has progressed to stonewalling, give it some time before reaching out.
At that moment, pull the focus back to you, and take care of yourself.
At any point, if things get too heavy mentally, confide in a confidante, or consider speaking with a professional. Everyone can benefit from a little therapy! 

Efforts have been made to get the information as accurate and updated as possible. If you found any incorrect information with credible source, please send it via the contact us form

Deborah Choo
Deborah Choo loves discussing relationships, platonic or not, as that remains at the heart of human existence. She draws upon learnings from couples’ counselling, and continues to celebrate an incredible journey of growth.

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