The Four Horsemen (of Relationships)

The Four Horsemen | An Overview

Couples Therapy & Counseling | Columbia, Mo

When we talk about the four horsemen during couples counseling, we're not talking about the apocalypse. We're talking about four styles of communication that, when present within relationships (and especially conflict), predict the eventual dissolution of that relationship.

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Basically, when conversations start with the four horsemen (or harsh startup, which is something different yet related), there’s a higher chance that couples will negatively react. In resxearch-y language, we call it negative affect reciprocity. In laypeople language, we call it negatively reacting to your partner. Once it starts, we expect that the immediate response (from one’s partner) will include one or more or the four horsemen and that if left unchecked, it’ll snowball, keep snowballing, and then lead to a higher likelihood of unhappiness, dissolution, separation, or divorce. Because that’s ultimately what the horsemen are about - predicting relationship dissolution.
*I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give full credit where credit is due. In no way, shape, or form, did I think of or come up with the four horsemen on my own. You can thank John and Julie Gottman for that, two gurus in the couples thearpy world. Yours truly utilizes the Gottman Method Couples Therapy approach with couples counseling (because it’s the best there is).

What are the four horsemen, exactly? Also, why should I care?

Well, I’m happy you’ve asked!

The four horsemen are criticism (i.e. you’re selfish, lazy, thoughtless, inconsiderate), defensiveness (i.e. “YOU didn’t do the dishes, either!!”), stonewalling (i.e. body shut down, mostly perpetrated by men although females do the same thing), and contempt (i.e. scorn, dismissive, eye rolling). Contempt is the most corrosive and toxic (especially when it’s from males to females <-specific to heterosexual relationships, but it’s toxic in all relationships).
*Those super brief parenthetical descriptions are hardly even considered a tip of the iceberg for describing the horsemen, so please click on each one to read more.

One of our favorite things about marriage counseling and couples therapy is that for every 'problem,' there's a 'solution.' With that said, it's not up to the counselor to 'fix' the relationship. I would go so far as to say that it has little, if anything, to do with the counselor. Yes, obviously, the counselor is there to help you and your partner learn how to really connect, fight, and feel understood, but counselors can’t force anybody to actually do the work. That’s what I’m trying to get at by saying it’s not up to the counselor to ‘fix’ the relationship. Ultimately, each party in the relationship has a high level of responsibility for engaging in the process and for maintaining the changes made.

Why do I need couples counseling for this?

Changes don't happen overnight. Well, technically, they can, but consistency with the new ways of being in your relationship takes time (and practice). And there's a huge (HHUUGGEEE) difference between knowing something/reading something/learning something and actually implementing it (read: you might know what to do, but do you do it?).

We can't even tell you how many times we've heard some variation of, "This is so hard!" once a person starts to engage in new types of dialogue. It's simple, but it's definitely easy to do. Especially if it's a hot button issue or topic.

This is why relationship counseling is important. Not only can your counselor help you identify your horsemen, but can also help you find new (and non-horseman-y) ways of saying what you need and want to say, and we'll be sure to introduce you to the antidotes to the horsemen, which are critical to relationship success!


About the Author

Couples Therapy & Marriage Counseling | Columbia, Mo

couples therapist columbia mo, marriage counselor, tara vossenkemper

Tara Vossenkemper is the founder, owner, and therapist with The Counseling Hub, a counselor (LPC) in the state of Missouri, and an almost doctor (finishing up her PhD). She specializes in couples therapy & marriage counseling using the highly effective Gottman Method Couples Therapy (and is currently obtaining her certification, which requires three levels of training and ongoing consultation - it's a necessarily rigorous process that she loves).

Tara has a diverse set of clinical experiences, working with both adolescents and adults on issues ranging from eating disorders and anxiety to spirituality and existential crises. However, she is most passionate about couples counseling. Tara enjoys working with couples looking to decrease or enhance conflict, relearn healthy and effective communication, or are healing from an affair. She's also been formally trained as in the Prepare-Enrich Premarital Couples Counseling approach and the PREP Approach for couples counseling.

Tara is also earning her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri - Saint Louis. She's "ABD" (all but dissertation) and furiously researching and writing to finish things up. She's presented at national, regional, and state conferences, as well as locally, on the topics of discrimination, sexual minority distress, spirituality, healthy lifestyle and mental health, and private practice. 

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