Annie Siemens // December 28, 2016

After asking many individuals about what they are struggling with in their relationship, the reply is mostly “communication”. It goes without saying that in relationships if communication is present, conflict is inevitable. The intention of this article is to present some of the findings from 30 years of longitudinal research conducted by relationship experts Drs. John and Julie Gottman. Research supports that 69% of marital conflicts are perpetual, meaning, they will never be resolved due to the lasting differences in personality and needs of the individuals. This news is either alarming, or makes complete sense to couples who have some marriage time under their belt. Wile (1988) wrote “Choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems”. The idea is that the relationship works to the extent to which a person can live with the set of perpetual problems within the relationship.

If communication is present, Conflict is inevitable.

Those in happy, long lasting relationships have the ability to have a conversation about these perpetual issues with humor, affection, and some irritability, but without escalating negative affect. Affect can be defined as one’s expression of emotion as demonstrated through facial expression, tone of voice, or body language. A hallmark of a healthy, functioning relationship is maintaining a 5-to-1 ratio of positive-to-negative affect during conflict. This means that for every one negative affect there are five positives. In relationships that are suffering, there is either an increase of negative affect, a lack of positive affect, or a state of emotional disengagement. The goal is not to eliminate conflict entirely, but rather to successfully navigate conflict in the relationship by avoiding behaviors that have been indicators of marriage dissolution.


The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end times in the New Testament, and is used by Dr.’s John and Julie Gottman to illustrate four communication styles that have been researched and identified as predictors of the end of the relationship. The goal is to identify the four horsemen in your conflict conversations, and to replace them with their anecdotes to ensure a healthy relationship.


Criticism is the first of the Four Horsemen. Criticism means stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s personality, that is, giving the partner negative trait attributions. For example, “You always talk about yourself, you’re so selfish” The anecdote to criticism is to Use Gentle Start Up, meaning, to talk about feelings using I-statements, and stating a positive need. A positive need is the hope, wish, or desire. For example: “I’m feeling left out of our talk, would you please ask me about my day?”


The next of the Four Horsemen is Defensiveness meaning, self-protection in the form of righteous indignation, or innocent victimhood. Defensiveness warns off a perceived attack. For example, if one partner says “I hate being late, I need you to be more on time” defensiveness is the counterattack “You think you’re so perfect? When’s the last time you paid the bills?” The anecdote to defensiveness is to Take Responsibility for even part of the problem, “Part of this is my fault, I do take longer than you would like.”


Contempt: a statement made from a place of superiority that often includes sarcasm, direct insults, name calling, or something even more subtle such as correcting one’s grammar when he or she is angry. In the research, contempt was found to be the greatest predictor of divorce. The anecdote to contempt is to Create a Culture of Appreciation and Respect. This means scanning the environment for actions that one can appreciate and respect about their partner. For example, instead of “You had no idea what you were doing in there” saying, “I’m proud of the way you handled that teacher conference.”


The last of the Four Horsemen is Stonewalling which is emotional withdrawal from interaction. An example would be the absence of cues that the listener is tracking with the speaker such as, head nods, brief vocalizations, facial movements. The listener is acting as a stone wall. The anecdote is to do Physiological Self-Soothing to stay emotionally connected to your partner. When someone is stonewalling, it is likely that their heart rate is elevated to over 100 beats per minute. The high heart rate renders the individual unable to hear their spouse no matter how hard they may try. Physiological self-soothing means taking a break from the discussion for 20 minutes while breathing, imagining your favorite place, relaxing, listening to music, or relaxing, allowing for the heart rate to decrease producing for a more productive and positive conversation.

Although the content of this article is primarily focused on marital relationships, everyone can benefit from employing the anecdotes to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in any of their relationships whether it be with family, friends, or even coworkers. Changing our long imbedded communication styles will not happen overnight, it may take much time and practice. The paradigm shifts from wanting to eliminate conflict in the relationship entirely to understanding that conflict is inevitable can be a relief. The hope is to go from having a “Blow-up” to having a “dialogue” about the perpetual issues, while using the anecdotes to the Four Horsemen to soften up the interaction. You will most likely be having some of the same conversations for the next 10, 15, or even 20 years, so settle in, and don’t be afraid to take a break, get distracted, go to your happy place, or laugh during difficult conversations, you’ll come back to it eventually anyway.

//  Annie Siemens, MFT, CDC I

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