Just like we see with some of our favorite movie and TV show couples — the path of love is often far from smooth. This is totally normal in reality, too. It’s human nature to disagree with your partner occasionally and have moments when you feel like tearing your hair out.

However, there are some behaviors that just aren’t okay to engage in on the regular. Particularly: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Otherwise known as the Four Horsemen of Relationships, these can prove highly destructive to all involved.

While they may not be of the apocalyptic scale as their biblical peers, they can do a number on our mental health and, taken to extremes, could even be classed as forms of emotional abuse.

Thus, it’s vital to nip negatives in the bud and highlight any issues — even if the mere prospect of confrontation sends your stomach into freefall. Saddle up as we face these horsemen head-on, and reveal how to tame their wild, wild, ways.

Share on Pinterest
Illustration by Maya Chastain

Repeated incidents of negative behaviors can quickly become wearing. Dr. Rachel M Allan, a Glasgow-based chartered counselling psychologist explains the impact.

“If you’re in a relationship that’s really high and consistent in these [negative] factors, it would be incredibly difficult,” she states. “It’s the small and repeated interactions that really create the quality of relationships and the connections we have with one another. Over time, you can imagine what that would do to your sense of self and confidence.”

Here’s how the four horsemen can take hold in your relationship and ways you can loosen their grip.

1. Criticism

There’s always going to be something someone says or does which draws criticism from their partner (*cough* not doing chores). But when critical comments become a regular occurrence, those on the receiving end can eventually start developing feelings of worthlessness in the relationship.

If your partner constantly makes critical remarks, you need to directly address the issue. Use a soft, non-aggressive tone, and phrase your remarks using ‘I’ rather than ‘you,’ so they don’t feel attacked.

Constructive example: “I felt really hurt by that comment.”

Not so constructive example: “Why are you so mean?”

Emphasizing how you’re feeling will help bring forward the impact of their words. If you’rethe one doing the criticizing, it’s important to acknowledge how you can positively reframe your comments.

“Think about how we give feedback, in terms of expressing our own needs and preferences; rather than in the context of it being a shortcoming or failure of the other person,” Allan notes. “Focus on the specific thing, rather than the person themselves or their traits.”

Not only will your partner appreciate the change, but adopting a less accusatory stance will help the discussion be more constructive.

2. Contempt

In the words of the late great Ms. Aretha Franklin, we all need a lil’ bit of respect. A positive connection requires healthy balance; and when one partner considers themselves superior, those scales tip out of whack.

Find yourself slipping into this pattern? Allan says recognition is the first step toward change.

“Take an objective view and recognize there has been an imbalance in what’s been getting your attention,” she says. “It’s not about saying you shouldn’t look at the negatives — it’s about evening up the balance and allowing some appreciation to arise.”

If you’re on the receiving end of contempt, Allan suggests leading by example to encourage different behavior in your partner. “Hopefully, what we can do is introduce a style to the relationship that will become mutual.”

Actively turn your attention to the positives and what’s valued in your partnership, and — fingers crossed — this will soon become the shared focus.

3. Defensiveness

Most of us, by nature, don’t feel great about someone else pointing out our faults. This is especially true if it’s coming from our partners. As such, it’s natural to want to protect ourselves or throw up a counterargument.

But this can become problematic if you react to the comments before taking a moment to consider their validity.

“Be open, within reason, to the feedback your partner is giving you,” suggests Allan, “This will provide mutual trust that the communication can be open, and that you can be reasonable in taking on feedback.”

Nobody likes to feel wrong, so fighting your defensive instinct won’t be easy. But give your partner some grace and be open to listening.

If your partner is the one going on the defensive, there are some approaches you can try to encourage more receptiveness. As the old saying goes — It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. So, check your own tone.

Also consider if any past events linked to the topic of discussion might be triggering for them. For example, if their previous relationship broke down due to a cheating incident, they’re likely going to be pretty touchy if you raise any trust issues. Try to approach with a wider perspective.

4. Stonewalling

Being ghosted by someone you’ve been on a few dates with is bad enough, but getting the silent treatment by your partner can be even more hurtful — especially if you’re not sure what you’ve done to cause it.

“Stonewalling renders the other partner helpless, to an extent,” Allan explains. “The difficulty is that there’s a risk the partner builds to try to get a response and move discussions forward. But if the other partner has gone to a place where they’re stonewalling, it’s unlikely to progress in that moment.”

As such, the best thing you can do is take a step back, give your partner a chance to calm down, and try to revisit the conversation later on when they’re more receptive.

Meanwhile, if you’re the one giving the cold shoulder, consider what you aim to achieve in doing so. There’ll be no satisfactory resolution without discussion. And if your partner has done something to really annoy you, they’re not going to know unless you tell them. Sometimes, actions don’t speak louder than words.

These four horsemen will have varying impacts depending on your relationship. Everyone will have different opinions about what’s acceptable and what’s not.

“Ultimately, you have to ask the question: Is the partnership worth its problems?” Allan notes. “I would emphasize the importance of personal boundaries. Each individual will have their own tipping point.”

It’s also important to acknowledge that, however much effort you put in, it takes two to tango — plus it’s not your responsibility to try and “fix” your partner.

Check in with yourself regularly and do what’s best for you. Essentially, relationships are meant to be supportive, happy, and loving. There’s no shame in going after what you want — and deserve — from a partner.

Chantelle Pattemore is a writer and editor based in London, UK. She focuses on lifestyle, travel, food, health, and fitness.