Couples need to avoid ‘The Four Horsemen’


The presence in a marriage of four particular negative behaviours, known sometimes as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, are strong predictors of divorce, says counsellor, pastor and radio DJ Aaron Ironside. Mr Ironside, from west Auckland, was a keynote speaker and workshop presenter at a marriage educators’ training weekend in Auckland from May 20 to 22.

In a workshop on communication, Mr Ironside explained that the four deadly behaviours, identified by Dr John Gottman, are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

Mr Ironside also talked about how couples can communicate better and avoid bad communication.

Criticism, he said, is attacking someone’s personality or behaviour, usually with blame, rather than dealing with a specific behaviour. “It’s character assassination,” he said.

Contempt is criticism “on steroids. That’s where I take the position that I am a better person than you.”

Defensiveness is feeling victimised by others in response to contempt. It shows up in denial of responsibility, making excuses, ‘yes-butting’, repeating oneself, whining body language, and table turning.

Stonewalling is refusing to negotiate a solution to a problem in good faith. It shows in refusal to discuss, to listen, to compromise, to collaborate, to accept influence.

Often the stonewalling person triggers escalation. But then the couple get away from the original activating issue.

“When these four [behaviours] are present, with 96 per cent accuracy they can predict that divorce will follow.”

There are two ways of communicating, Mr Ironside said. “One is ‘giraffe’ language, and the language of the heart; and ‘jackal’, language of judgment, of assumption, of condemnation.”

Mr Ironside outlined the foundation of good communication:

Clear expression, using “I” statements, honest expression, giving empathy, making observation, expressed genuine feelings, expressing needs, making straightforward requests, distinguishing thoughts from feelings, avoiding pseudo feelings, avoiding interpretations.

According to Dr Gottman, in healthy interdependent relationships couples make constant requests for support, understanding, and connection. Mr Ironside referred to the work of Dr Marshall Rosenberg, who developed a model of non-violent communication.

Practising non-violent communication helps to reframe how we listen to others and express ourselves by focusing our consciousness on four areas: what we  observe, feel, need and what we want to enrich our lives. In this context, “need” defines the basic human needs we share. If we learn to focus on how to meet our unmet needs, we can begin to connect at the place within us where we are all essentially the same.

When we are angry, we get caught up in the “wrongness” of others and lose sight of what we need.

1: Think of anger as a red light 

Anger is like a warning light and can alert us to what we need and value. So it helps to avoid ideas of the other as “wrong” or images of them as the “enemy”.

2: Look clearly at what happened 

Statements like: “You insulted me!” “You’re a control freak!” “You’re always trying to manipulate me!” imply wrongness, but don’t describe what happened. Ask yourself, “What would a video camera have recorded?” Then you might be able to describe the situation accurately.

“I heard you say I’m a lazy slob.” “You said you wouldn’t go out with me unless I wore the red dress.” “You said I always wear clothes that are out of style.” Once you clearly describe what you are reacting to, the hearer is less likely to be defensive.

3: Take responsibility for how you feel  

Anger signals that you’ve been distracted by judgmental or punitive thinking and that some need of yours is being ignored. Remember to stop and discern what needs attention.

Remember other people’s actions don’t “make” us feel any certain way. Feelings are warning indicators and result from unmet needs. Anger results from focusing attention on what the other person “should” or “shouldn’t” do and judging them as “wrong” or “bad”. As our attention shifts to identifying which need of ours isn’t being satisfied, our feelings will shift.

4: “Name the blame” and be clear about what we feel 

We have been trained to ignore our own wants and discount our needs. When we are angry we are likely to have “blame thinking”. Inside “blame thinking” we have emotions, caused by unmet needs.

Separating feelings from judgments helps us get clear about needs and moving to get them met.

5: Determine our need 

The beauty of correctly interpreting feelings as warning signals is that once we know what we need, we can act towards getting our needs met!

6: Find the do behind the don’t 

When people are angry, they often focus on the behaviour they want the other person to stop. We are more likely to get our needs met if we agree around a “positive” request that says clearly what meets our needs. Place the focus on what we do want, not on what we don’t want.

7: Think of a clear action request 

“I want you to be reliable” is not a clear, doable request. Instead, imagine the other person doing or saying something that is in harmony with our desire and likely to meet our need.

8: Name their feelings and needs 

If we really want to reliably meet our needs, then make sure the other person’s needs are also met. Our needs can never be fully met at others’ expense.

9: Decide whose need we will talk about first 

Imagine everybody’s needs will be understood and honoured. The process is complete only after all have been heard and understood and leave satisfied. Focus during the conversation on feelings, needs and values, and determine whose needs to explore first.

10: Start talking

Ask the following questions first: Are we clear about what we are reacting to? Are we in touch with our feelings and needs? Do we have a hunch about the other person’s feelings, needs and values? Do we know what we want to have happen next?

Telling a person that we hear what they want is not the same as agreeing to do it. By hearing what they want, we make sure we understand clearly so we can let them know how we are about doing it. They are also likely to be more receptive to various strategies for meeting their needs.

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Rowena Orejana

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