The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Part Four

The last of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is called stonewalling. Unlike the other three horsemen, rather than continuing to plod through toxic interactions, stonewalling just stops and turns away.

A person that stonewalls disengages from the dialogue. It’s as if the person “disappears” leaving the partner grasping for connection. Typically, stonewalling is an attempt at self-soothing. A person may feel overwhelmed or “flooded” by the interactions and decide to check out. Essentially, it’s a way to calm down, but it results in a deeply wounded partner.

Men stonewall at a higher percentage than women, while women tend to criticize much more than men. This often leads to a “dance” where flooded men check out and hurt women become more critical. The cycle leads to a downward spiral unless more empathetic and constructive repairs can be made in the dialogue by both partners.

Stonewalling is a “turning away” from one’s partner. The solution is to self-sooth in ways that “turn towards” one’s partner with empathy. Sometimes it can help to take a break from the dialogue, as long as there is an agreed upon time to pick it up again. That way neither partner feels abandoned or disrespected by the other.

In this short, four-part series, we have seen four characteristics of relationships that partners need to be vigilant about. Most relationships experience some of the four horsemen at times. However, couples that remain happy have much lower levels than couples that separate. Happy couples have a greater ability to repair the dialogue. This is especially true when the dialogue is about perpetual problems that keep surfacing throughout the relationship.

A helpful rule of thumb is to attack the problem, not each other.

The Four Horsemen Part Three: Contempt

“Contempt is any statement or non-verbal behavior that places oneself on a higher plane than one’s partner.” (John Gottman – The Marriage Clinic).

Contempt can take many forms. Common expressions of contempt include mockery, ridiculing your partner’s grammar, feelings, thoughts or beliefs, and non-verbal facial expressions that send the message, “You’re an idiot.” The most common, contemptuous facial expression is the “eye roll” combined with an upturned corner of the mouth. It’s a look that says, “Give me a break,” or “I’m better than you.”

John Gottman discovered that a certain number of these corrosive, contemptuous facial expressions by husbands could actually predict the number of infectious diseases their wives would have over the next four years. When wives were contemptuous, their husbands’ illnesses became predicted by how lonely the husbands felt in the marriage.

Humor is often used as a “cover” or an excuse for contempt. “I was just joking” is a way to justify this behavior. Jokes are not healthy or helpful if one’s partner isn’t laughing. Healthy humor will bring people together. Contempt rips relationships apart.

The solution for contempt is for partners to view and treat each other as equals. Mutual respect and empathy, even in the midst of differences, is essential. Contempt is the most destructive of the Four Horsemen and must be eradicated from the relationship if it is to thrive.