The Four Horsemen: How to Spot Trouble in Your Relationship

Conflict, not compatibility, will tell you what you really need to understand about your partner.

I’ve done most of my internet dating using the site OKCupid. Created by mathematicians, and populated with thousands of questions through which you reveal the nature of your likes and dislikes, the site will calculate a percentage match with the users in your dating pool based on how similar your answers are.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this. It’s nice to know up front whether someone you find attractive is a Jesus devotee or would be willing to kiss you after oral sex. But finding compatibility through similarities is a false security. It might mean you’ll easily decide which film to see together or predict your partner’s reaction when you pull out the riding crop. But nothing defines a relationship better than how you fight.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” When we get angry, it takes all our years of life skills to keep from flipping our lids the way we did as toddlers when our toys were taken from us.  Anger stimulates the amygdala first, the oldest and most reptilian part of our brain and the initial processor of our emotions. If the amygdala acted alone we would all behave like twitchy geckos, darting this way and that in response to unconsidered stimuli.

Fortunately, humans (and some other mammals) have developed a limbic system through which our collective experiences help regulate our emotional response. Despite these neurocognitive advances, we’re still often at the mercy of our quick-witted emotions. When in conflict with the ones we love, our behavior will prove how well we’ve managed to harness our lily-livered lizard brain and allow reason and compassion to rule our actions.

I’ve mentioned the work of John Gottman here before in the article Are You Practicing the Magic Ratio? He’s observed conflict between couples over decades and has described what he calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; behaviors exhibited when fighting with a partner that spell, if not certain doom, then a lot of yucky suffering within your relationship.

Criticism: Being able to critique your mate’s behavior without it turning into a criticism of their personhood is the most magnanimous way to operate in love. It means sticking to the issue at hand and not angrily concluding that their failure to do that thing you asked is an example of their worth as a human being. To say someone is a ‘forgetful idiot’ is a judgement of their character when chances are they don’t forget to put their clothes on when they walk out the door. If you want to see your partner’s jaw drop, tell them their oversight is no big deal and suggest a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors to see who has to go back out and collect the kids.

Contempt: This is the sarcasm-dripping disdain that’s pathetically easy to lob at your most cherished one. It’s the eye-rolling, mocking, name-calling disrespect that only proves how mean you can really be. Contempt is fear and insecurity disguised as the witty put-down or cutting remark. Contempt is the single biggest predictor of divorce, and yet many of us live with it for years, gradually eroding the esteem we have for ourselves and our partners. Contempt is Donald Trump’s attitude towards everyone but himself – and it has no place in a loving relationship.

Defensiveness: Defending yourself and your actions is as common as eye blinking. The trick is figuring out the difference between using it as an explanation rather than an excuse. ‘I didn’t make the appointment for the car because the office burned down today.’ Is an explanation. ‘I didn’t make the appointment because I’ve been working overtime all this week, don’t you understand that?!’ is defensiveness that reflects anger and denies responsibility. Worse, a defensive counter attack goes on to say ‘You should have done it yourself when you saw how tired I was.’ Try admitting your failure (because it’s just a little one, not a reflection of who you are) and watch your partner suddenly realise you’re not so bad after all.

Stonewalling: This is unilateral withdrawal from engagement; leaving the room when your partner is still talking, hanging up the phone, or simply going silent and refusing to acknowledge the other person’s concerns. Stonewalling often becomes a coping device after years of criticism and contempt in a relationship. If you find yourself shutting down in order to tolerate your partner, that’s the Apocalypse having arrived at your own front door.

When we start out in a new relationship, all juiced up for how wonderful this person is, how well we get along and how much we have in common, take a breath and promise yourself not to talk about where to schedule the wedding before you’ve had that first big disagreement. I’m not saying you should throw in the towel if your mate exhibits some of these common lizard-brained behaviors. But if fighting with this person makes you feel small, criticized and blamed, you’ve got to rethink your options and work on your diplomacy. Then, leave if you both can’t figure out how to fight nicely. I left a man I had just started dating stranded miles from home when he wagged his finger in my face and growled that I wasn’t listening to him during an argument. I might have swallowed my pride and seen if we could have repaired our hurt feelings. But I’m too old now, and my young son is the only person I’m going to spend my time excusing and working with.

We’re all doing the best we can. But our best has to be something we’ve put some effort into. Learning to disagree with grace and get yourself heard without putting another person down is a skill that will come in handy in all your human interactions. So get off your high horse, especially if that horse is one of these harbingers of relationship death. Instead, shed the armor and kill them with kindness.

Love, Karin

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