In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman identifies criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling as the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse that predict the demise of a relationship. These styles of communication are all indicators that goodwill in the relationship is dismally low. Traditional relationship advice is to learn behavioral and communication skills to keep these Four Horsemen at bay. What this advice misses, however, is that couples don’t have communication problems. They have challenges as the result of diminished goodwill. When there is a good feeling between two people, communication is never the problem, even when there are language barriers. Therefore, the focus on learning communication skills and techniques misses the actual issue.
In my experience both personally and professionally, with the couples Angus and I work with, lack of goodwill in a relationship results from the internal emotional instability of the individuals involved rather than something being wrong with the relationship itself. When we as humans get insecure, if we don’t understand what is happening, it is easy for us to behave in all kinds of ways to try and stabilize ourselves that are detrimental to goodwill in the relationship. That is all these four ways of communicating are. They are misguided attempts to overcome our own feelings of discomfort and vulnerability that result from buying into our insecure thinking. Therefore, the solution is to have a different relationship with these uncomfortable feelings so we can tolerate them until they pass without behaving in ways that are ineffective and decrease goodwill. This occurs naturally when we see that our emotional instability can never come from outside of us. It is only every created by our internally generated thoughts. We create our reality via our thinking moment-to-moment. The implications of seeing this for relationships are transformative. Someone else can never upset us. We are only ever experiencing upset as the result of the thoughts we are identifying with.
Intimate relationships are the perfect learning ground for getting better at not being taken down by our own limiting beliefs and anxious thoughts. When we fall in love with someone, our heart opens and we experience the beautiful feelings that are the result of us connecting with our true nature more fully. It looks like the experience is coming from someone else, but really we are feeling who we are. In this honeymoon phase of the relationship, each person is resilient. It is common to feel on top of the world and invincible. Neither partner takes the other person’s weaknesses seriously. Bumps along the way are taken in stride. However, somewhere along the way, someone’s mood will drop and thoughts of doubt and insecurity will seep back in. We get scared. We no longer feel safe being so open and free. We become frightened of getting hurt. To protect ourselves, we start to take our negative thinking more seriously, believing we are being reasonable, rational, and responsible. What previously looked like inconsequential or even cute characteristics in our partner, now begin to look like problems or, depending on how insecure we feel, maybe even deal-breakers.
If we understand what is happening it does not have to be a big problem. It is normal for human moods to go up and down and with them the quality of our personal thinking fluctuates. As humans, we are going to get gripped by negative, insecure thoughts at times and even behave badly, but when we see this for what it is, an internal learning curve and not an external relationship issue, we can navigate these fluctuations more gracefully.
Here is an example of my learning curve. When I married Angus I knew he was an extremely talented photographer who loved the creative part of his career more than the business side. I knew he was extremely positive and optimistic. This gave him a high threshold for financial risk because he trusted that things would always work out. He was less bothered about dotting I’s and crossing T’s, and instead focused on the big picture and broad-brush strokes. I loved this about him. It was so refreshing, and a beautiful counter-balance to my predisposition, at the time, to be negative and anxious. I was swept up by his freedom and optimism.
I found it exhilarating — until we had our eldest daughter. After her birth, my level of financial risk-tolerance decreased. All of the insecure thinking about finances that I had been ignoring suddenly became compelling to me. I felt scared and brought more focus and energy to these thoughts that only made them look more real. I did not understand I was experiencing my destabilized thinking. I believed I was feeling insecure due to our circumstances.
At the time, the digital revolution was fully underway in photography, and Angus’s business was in flux. I had ended my modeling career with the birth of our daughter so finances were tight. It was easy for me to think the numbers in our bank account caused my anxiety. I did not understand that my anxiety was free floating and 100% independent of circumstances. So, rather than letting myself settle down so I could stop fueling my anxious thoughts and drop back into my natural state of wellbeing, I set about trying to fix our circumstances thinking that would make me feel better. I didn’t trust Angus in this process because of his capacity to maintain his optimism and equilibrium in the face of what I considered dire straits was no longer charming or exhilarating. Now I saw these qualities as reckless and irresponsible. The very same qualities I found so attractive at the beginning of our relationship, I now viewed with condescension and contempt. I had no time for him to be laid back.
Out of fear, I got a full-time job even though in my heart I yearned to be a stay-at-home mom for longer. The job also required that I stop my studies to become a psychotherapist another of my heartfelt dreams, but I ignored my deeper calling. I overrode my desires. I sacrificed myself under the illusion that it was necessary for me to feel okay. I thought these changes would reduce my anxiety because I didn’t see my anxiety was coming from my thinking. I did not recognize that no amount of money would change it.
Not surprisingly, as I ignored my calling, my mood dropped. In this state of destabilization, I opened the door to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I favored criticism, contempt, and stonewalling, and Angus got good at defensiveness. Naturally, the goodwill in our relationship plummeted. We attempted to address this through couple’s counseling, but communication techniques were not the problem. We were quite capable of communicating well with each other when we were in a good state of mind. And we did, but there were times when we were too stirred up to do so. At those times we weren’t ourselves. We didn’t see this. Instead, we took our behavior at those times seriously. We made it mean things about our relationship and us. We judged our relationship as not working. We saw ourselves as incompatible. We decided we couldn’t get along because we were too different.
It was a negatively reinforcing cycle. The more we tried to fix our relationship, the more we saw wrong with it and each other. We became more discouraged. It was a classic example of what you focus on grows in your awareness. The problems between us appeared bigger and looked irreconcilable. All because we didn’t understand the problem was our state of mind and not our behavior or circumstances. The more discouraged I felt, the more desperate and irrational my attempts to stabilize myself became. All I needed to do was relax and let my thinking settle down so I could stabilize and get perspective. Instead, I kept fueling my negative thinking and engaging actions that were going from bad to worse.
Angus and I were living in our separate thought created realities seeing each other through the lens of our negative thinking. From this perspective, it made sense to us to communicate unkindly with each other. I no longer saw Angus as my creative, fun-loving, inspiring, generous, and kind husband. I saw him as mean, bad-tempered, unkind and irresponsible, and I related to him that way. This, of course, brought out the worst in him, which of course, brought out the worst in me because I thought he was responsible for my feelings. We did inadvertently find temporary respite along the way. We would naturally find ourselves stabilizing and getting unstuck from negative thinking. We enjoyed periods of calm, but we didn’t know why. Why were we at times best of friends and passionate lovers and other times be at each other’s throats?
It wasn’t until we each saw in our own way the truth of how we create our unique experience. When we recognized that we convert the divine, formless energy of thought into our personal thinking as it passes through the lens of our consciousness, we saw we are the authors of our reality. We also recognized how quickly our experience could shift by seeing the infinite potential and transitory nature of thought. The profound awareness of our experience being generated from inside of us meant we could no longer blame the other person or our circumstances for how we felt. This was both deeply empowering and humbling.
When we saw this, our behavior naturally changed toward each other. I no longer felt contempt toward Angus, not because he changed, but because I was more stable inside of myself. I recognized the appearance of the Four Horsemen as signs of me being stirred up and taking my thinking too seriously. Through seeing this, I am getting better at not bringing my anxious, negative thoughts to life for as long, or with as much intensity as before. As a result, I am more resilient. I bounce back from emotional upset more quickly, and I take Angus’s negative behavior less personally. This allows me to be more compassionate with him when he is suffering. Neither one of us is perfect, but now, we at least understand that any problems we experience in our relationship are really problems with our own state of mind and how we are relating to our thinking. This means that I get to enjoy him more often the way I did when we first met. I get to experience a deeper connection with my true nature through my relationship with him. It has been well worth the journey. My relationship with him is one of my favorite forms of spiritual practice.
So if you find yourself experiencing a lack of goodwill in your relationship and having difficulty connecting deeply and communicating effectively, recognize this is a symptom of internal instability. When you see this, it will be natural to put the oxygen mask on yourself. You will see the benefit of letting your mind settle so you can feel a deeper connection with your true nature. Ill will is always the result of our own thinking being unsettled. It gets in the way of us having an open heart.
The next time the Four Horsemen visit your relationship; recognize they will be sent on their way most expeditiously by seeing them as warning signals about your state of mind and the quality of your thinking. They don’t mean anything about the relationship. This way they can be greeted with gratitude rather than dismay. You can use them to point you in the direction of your innate wisdom that will guide you back to your natural state of wellbeing where only love exists, and from the feeling of love, you will communicate effectively. As you allow this to unfold, you get to fall in love over and over again not only with your partner but also with yourself and the entire experience of being.
Rohini Ross is co-founder of “The Rewilders.” Listen to her podcast, with her partner Angus Ross, Rewilding Love. They believe too many good relationships fall apart because couples give up thinking their relationship problems can’t be solved. In this season of the Rewilding Love Podcast, Rohini and Angus help a couple on the brink of divorce due to conflict. Angus and Rohini also co-facilitate private couples' intensives that rewild relationships back to their natural state of love. Rohini is also the author of the ebook Marriage, and she and Angus are co-founders of The 29-Day Rewilding Experience and The Rewilding Community. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about her work and subscribe to her blog visit: TheRewilders.org.