The Four Horsemen of Relationships

We often hear about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But have you heard about ‘The Four Horsemen of Relationships’? These are intricate dynamics of relationships, which specifically focus on the notorious ‘Four Horsemen’. These four destructive patterns have the potential to wreak havoc on even the most seemingly loving relationships. So what are they?

  1. Criticism

Criticism is like a poison that seeps into the foundation of a relationship. Note, it is not just about expressing dissatisfaction, but about attacking your partner’s character. For instance, instead of saying, “I didn’t like that you forgot our wedding anniversary”, the statement comes as “You are very thoughtless and selfish.” Even by reading out loud, you can hear the contrast between those two statements. As a marriage and family therapist, I encourage partners to replace criticism with gentle and mindful requests. An example would be, “I felt hurt when our special day was overlooked. Can we find a way to celebrate it together soon?” Here, it is not about blame, but about understanding each other’s needs

  • Defensiveness

Defensiveness is the armour that we tend to put on when we feel attacked. Though it is a natural response, it has the potential to escalate conflicts within a relationship. Some people also tend to be more sensitive, possibly owing to past traumas or insecure attachment styles. In this case, instead of listening to our partner’s concerns, we deflect blame or launch a counter-attack. It is important to practice empathy so that when your partner expresses some form of frustration, you could perhaps say, “I hear you. Let’s talk about how we can address this together.” Remember, vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness. Healthy relationships require vulnerability towards each other.

  • Contempt

Let’s call this the ultimate relationship poison! That eye roll…that mocking statement or tone…that look of disdain… When we treat our partner with contempt, what we are communicating is that “You are beneath me’. This erodes trust and intimacy faster than anything else, because love thrives more in an environment that upholds respect. I encourage couples to choose kindness – even when they are having disagreements. Instead of contemptuous remarks, try expressing gratitude or appreciating your partner. For instance, “I value your efforts, even when we disagree.”

  • Stonewalling

Also known as ‘silent treatment’, it happens when we shut down emotionally and (in silence) say, “I am done’. Stonewalling leaves your partner feeling unseen, unheard and abandoned. It is possible to physically be in the same space, even at home, and yet the heart has checked out. To address or prevent this, I advise couples to practice active listening, put down all defenses and keenly listen to your partner’s perspective. Emotional connection requires both partners to be truly present with each other.

Recognizing the presence of these Four Horsemen in relationships and addressing them in good time is a good way to heal the sores in your relationship / marriage. Be intentional about replacing criticism with gentle requests, defensiveness with empathy, contempt with kindness and stonewalling / silent treatment with active listening. And when you need someone to walk with you as you recover from the damages caused by these Four Horsemen of Relationships, feel free to book a couple’s therapy session on my booking page.

Let us work together in building healthier and more resilient relationships.

Marriage By Design with Grace Kariuki, MAMFT