The Four Horsemen: How NOT to Communicate When You Have Multiple Partners

We all have different communication styles. Over time, we fall into certain communication patterns with our partners. We may have learned our method of communication from our parents growing up, or we may feed off the communication styles that have developed throughout our relationships. Each relationship will have its own communication pattern – you most likely do not speak to your best friend in the same way that you speak to your nesting partner, and most likely do not speak to your nesting partner in the same way that you speak to your long-distance partner. However, in any relationship, there are problematic interactions that can lead to the end of a relationship.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor originally put forth by Dr. John Gottman, a prevalent relationship researcher who can predict whether (monogamous) couples will divorce with a 91% accuracy rate, after listening to their conversation for 15 minutes! Dr. Gottman used this description for these four forms of negativity because they will often, and very effectively, end a relationship.

While this research was originally developed with monogamous couples in mind, I believe it can also be applied to polyamorous relationships, both with your partner(s) and with your metamours. Many blogs and articles have been published about The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in regards to monogamous couples. Therefore, this article will focus more on multi-partner relationships, to hopefully add a more inclusive perspective on these negative communication habits.

The first Horseman is Criticism. Criticism is a global critique of the other person and is an expression of your negative feelings toward who the other person is. This differs from a complaint, which is about a specific issue. A complaint in a relationship is fine; people have to have some way to express when they are feeling hurt. However, a criticism will only make your partner, metamour, or both feel quite negative, both about themselves and, most likely, about you. Here are some examples:

Complaint (to partner): “I’m really angry that you didn’t let me know you weren’t coming home last night from your friend’s house. Next time, could you please let me know ahead of time?”

Criticism (of partner): “You never let me know if you’re coming back from your friend’s house. You’re always so inconsiderate and and you just don’t care about me and my feelings.”

Complaint (to metamour): “I was really hurt that you didn’t talk to me first about planning a weekend trip for my husband; that’s my mom’s birthday weekend. Could you run it by me next time?”

Criticism (of metamour): “You are so selfish and self-centered in your relationships. You never think about how your actions impact other people. What is wrong with you?”

As you can see, there is a clear difference between a complaint and a criticism in each of these cases. In addition, these dynamics can happen even if you have no interaction with your metamour. If you are speaking to your partner about your metamour, it is also important to avoid criticism. If you criticize your metamour to your partner, your partner will get stuck in the middle, and may even begin to feel defensive of their other partner. Incidentally, defensiveness is the third Horseman.

Before defensiveness, however, is the second Horseman: Contempt. Contempt is born from a sense of superiority over your partner or metamour, and is a form of disrespect. Sneering, sarcasm, eye-rolling, name-calling, cynicism, and mockery are all forms of contempt.

Let’s look at the above examples. If your partner stated that they would let you know the next time they were planning to stay over at their friend’s house, what would your response be? If you rolled your eyes and said, “Oh yeah, just like the last ten times you’ve promised to let me know and haven’t followed through?” That would be a sign of contempt. If your partner again tries to reconcile, and asks you to text a reminder to let you know, and you again sneer and say, “Why do I have to babysit you? You’re a full-grown adult, you should be able to check in all by yourself!” This is another contemptuous statement. If this kind of contempt continues for long in your relationship, your partner will begin to get very defensive.

This is true of metamours as well. In the above example, your metamour may apologize for not letting you know that they were planning a weekend with your husband. If you respond to this by calling your metamour a “bitch,” an “asshole,” or any other name-calling, this is definitely a sign of contempt. In addition, if you continue this kind of contempt when talking to your partner about your metamour, you are likely to push your partner farther away as well, and lead them both into defensiveness.

The third Horseman of the Apocalypse, Defensiveness, is a natural outcome to all of the criticism and contempt that may be occurring in the relationship. We have all become defensive at times, and may look for excuses for our actions. However, it rarely has the desired effect. Usually, defensiveness is a way of warding off attacks by blaming your partner or not taking responsibility for your mistakes. This will often cause your partner to become even more critical and contemptuous, thus escalating the conflict. Your partner may not even acknowledge your reasoning at all!

For instance, in the first example, in which the partner did not state that they would not be home for the night, they may become defensive and say, “I didn’t mean to make you worry; I just fell asleep, and I forgot to let you know that I wouldn’t be home!” The partner who was initially upset may then become more upset, as the defensive partner is not validating, or even acknowledging, her feelings. This defensiveness also opens the door to more criticism and contempt, as the reply may be something along the lines of, “Oh, you just always fall asleep with no regard for what I might be doing or how I might be feeling,” which escalates the argument even more.

A metamour may also get defensive, or your partner may get defensive for your metamour. This kind of argument may open the door to other arguments as well, if your partner does not validate your own feelings. An argument about your metamour may go something like this:

Partner 1:  Jaden is so selfish and self-centered in his relationships. He never thinks about how his actions impact other people. What is wrong with him? (Criticism)

Partner 2: I think he just forgot to tell you about the vacation he was planning. He didn’t do it on purpose. (Defensive)

Partner 1: He is such a jerk! This isn’t the first time this has happened. I’ve asked him to let me know about his plans multiple times, and he never follows through. I always let him know when I’m making plans for you and I to go out of town! (Contempt)

Partner 2: Whoa hold on. He literally forgot this one time, and once last year to tell you his birthday plans. You forgot to let him know about our anniversary weekend a few months ago, too. (Defensive)

Partner 1: You’re always taking his side! I can’t believe you can be so naive and thoughtless. Why don’t you ever care about my feelings? You always give him a free pass! (Criticism) 

Partner 2: I don’t give him a free pass. I don’t even know what that would look like, considering I’ve never gotten a free pass from you. (Defensive, Contempt)

As you can see, these conversation can spiral out of control quickly, and they never resolve anything. Eventually, this will also lead to the fourth Horseman: Stonewalling.

Stonewalling occurs when one partner eventually tunes the other person out. They have had enough of the argument (or many arguments over a period of time), and they are burnt out on arguing. They will withdraw from the interaction, shut down, and begin distracting or engaging in other activities to remove themselves from the argument. The stonewaller will often simply look away or look at the ground, not utter another word, and sit very still. The above argument could also easily end with one partner saying “whatever” and walking away, pulling out their phone, or turning on the TV. These would all be examples of stonewalling. If this was a texting conversation, the partner may simply choose not to respond, or they may say, “Busy now, gotta go” and effectively remove themselves from the conversation.

When stonewalling becomes a habit in a relationship, it can be difficult to overcome. Stonewalling occurs because the individual begins to feel psychologically overwhelmed, or “flooded,” and the person may not even be physiologically able to discuss things rationally.

If you or your partner begins to feel like stonewalling in an argument, it is important to take a break and come back to the discussing after emotions have calmed down. This does not mean avoiding the conversation altogether – it simply means taking 20-30 minutes alone to engage in another activity, like taking a walk, playing a game on your phone, or reading a chapter in a book. Then, when you and your conversation partner both feel able, you can return to the discussion.

In the future, be mindful of how you are communicating with your partner(s) and your metamour(s). Remember the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling, and try to remind yourself not to engage in this type of communication. If you do find yourself engaging in this way, apologize to your partner or metamour and start over. Ask yourself: Is this a helpful and healthy way to communicate? If it is not, try something different!

-Steph.

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

Lisitsa, E. (2013). The four horsemen: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved on January 20, 2019 from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/

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