3. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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3. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Opening the Can of Worms-Cple

Opening the Can of Worms, Complications in Couples and Couple Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Since many theorists and therapists focus on using positive emotions or productive emotional experiences to facilitate couple's health, they inevitably also highlight negative emotional processes that corrupt relationship functioning.  Gottman (1994, p.110) identified four negative emotional processes that he felt were the most detrimental to relationships.  The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1994a, p. 110) are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and withdrawal- also called stonewalling.  "Criticism involves attacking someone's personality or character- rather than a specific behavior- usually, with blame" (Gottman, 1994b, p. 73).  How frequently, a partner censored or qualified complaints as opposed to expressing with full anger or negativity, the frequency of insulting (or otherwise judgmental) words or phrases, and the frequency of the complaints becoming unstoppable once started are indicators of criticism and its effect on the relationship.  Contempt and defensiveness are thoughts and communications that are disrespectful to the other during an emotionally charged situation like an argument.  Contempt and defensiveness according to Gottman are "different sides of the same coin" (or construct)… a lack of respect for the partner when discussing an issue, how frequently they saw glaring faults in the partner's personality, how frequently they felt they had to ward off attacks from the partner, and how frequently they felt unfairly attacked when they were in an argument with the partner (Holman and Jarvis, 2003, page 273-74).  The fourth horseman is withdrawal (or stonewalling).  This involves a partner removing oneself from the interaction in a manner that conveys disapproval, icy distance, and smugness (Gottman, 1994b).  Couples vary on how frequently they determined it most beneficial to step away to prevent an argument turning into a major battle.  They vary on "how often they thought withdrawal was the best solution, how often they just sat back and waited when having an argument, and how often they withdrew to try to calm down" (Holman and Jarvis, 2003, page 274).

Molly complained that first Cole would criticize her about her choices.  Then when she got upset that he didn't understand, he would just shut down on her.  He'd stop talking and just look at her with cold blank eyes she said like, "the actor in Robocop!"  She would escalate and go at him with greater intensity, and Cole would keep stare at her without saying anything.  After verbally ripping him with all she had, she'd demand, "Well?  What do you have to say?  Say something!"  And Cole would smile slightly, shake his head, and say, "There's nothing to say."  And then, he'd walk away.  Molly exclaimed, "That makes me so mad!  He's smirking at me!  Mocking me!  I want to jump on his back and make him stay.  I feel like I've just been erased!"  Cole retorted, "And what happens next?  Huh?  Huh?  Tell the therapist.  You give me the silent treatment for the next three days!"  Molly snapped, "What else do you think I can do?  It's better than throwing pots and pans at you!"  Cole said, "Hrumph!  That's why I don't try to answer you.  Anything I say would just make it worse."

Gottman further identifies regulated couples that utilize more positive problem-solving behaviors than negative problem solving behaviors.  Not surprisingly, the partners tend to be more agreeable in the relationship.  Among positive behaviors are positive or neutral descriptions, assent, and humor.  Non-regulated couples, on the other hand are much more prone to using negative processes.  Non-regulated couples are more likely to complain, criticize, and be defensive.  Hostile couples have the highest frequency and most intense conflict interactions.  They tend to use personal attacks and show very little positive affect.  Gottman identified three couple types: validating couples, volatile couples, and conflict-avoiding (or conflict-minimizing) couples.  The ratio of positive to negative affect varies with a significantly positive ratio predictive of greater relationship satisfaction.  Validating couples tend to handle their differences openly and cooperatively.  They incorporate high levels of positive affect and verbally express respect for the partner's opinions.  Conflict-avoiding couples confront more covertly.  They tend to downplay negative affect and focus primarily on similarities.  Volatile couples, like validating couples, overtly deal with differences.  However, they tend to be competitive as opposed to being cooperative.  Their conflict interchange has more negative affect.  Each partner tries to get the other partner to defer or give in.  Despite the greater frequency of overt conflict, volatile couples had greater levels of positive communication and lower levels of negative communication than hostile couples.  Among types of couples, hostile couples tend to have poorer relationship satisfaction than validating, avoiding, or volatile couples.  Hostile couples have greater propensity to use criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and withdrawal.  "…the men and women classified as hostile clearly displayed the poorest relationships in terms of our outcome measures.  That is, the hostile individuals always had the lowest relationship satisfaction and relationship stability.  The unmarried hostile types also had the lowest soothing and the highest criticism, contempt/defensiveness, and flooding… The married males and females classified as hostile had the lowest positive communication and the highest negative communication, compared to the other types" (Holman and Jarvis, 2003, page 275.)

Gottman would describe Cole and Molly's interaction becoming flooded.  Each partner gets flooded or emotionally overwhelmed by the other' negative emotions.  Regulated couples have a lower tendency to get flooded.  Partners in hostile couples find it difficult to lower their emotional reactivity.  Subsequently, they are also poorer at soothing each other's flooded emotions than are the three regulated couple types.  "Flooding occurs when one feels overwhelmed by the partner's negative affect to the extent that one experiences 'system overload' (Gottman, 1994a, 1994b)… how physically tense and anxious, how physically tired and drained, and how overwhelmed the respondent become when having an argument with the partner."  On the other hand, "Soothing was defined as the attempt to calm oneself and one's partner when evidence of physiological arousal was manifested.  Soothing was measured by… how frequently the respondent tried to calm herself or himself when physiologically aroused, how frequently the respondent tried to calm an aroused partner, and how frequently the respondent had found that taking a break and calming down was helpful" (Holman and Jarvis, 2003, page 274).

Cole and Molly get flooded with negative emotions and are inadequate at soothing both themselves and each other.  Many couple therapy approaches using terms such as validation, emotional connection, positive regard, empathy, and so forth, focus on improving mutual soothing between partners.  Some approaches also address the emotional reactivity or flooding that make soothing instincts and behaviors problematic in some couples.  If Cole and Molly could soothe each other... if Cole and Molly could avoid becoming flooded, then a process of therapy and of relating better could be taught and integrated.  However, the fact of mutual inability to soothe and avoid becoming flooded is often what causes the relationship dysfunction in the first place.  Gottman's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are often as much participants in couple therapy as the therapist and two partners.  Intense emotional energy may be both the cause and the consequence of such relational incapacities for the couple… and both the cause and consequence of therapeutic strategy and therapeutic difficulties.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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