John Gottman in Seattle, WA, has done extensive research on couples' relationships and has determined that there are four very destructive elements that can wreak havoc in a relationship. These he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in a Biblical reference. In the Bible the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are the precursors of destruction to come. In a relationship, Gottman says his four horsemen also are precursors of relationship destruction to come.
The Four Horsemen are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Because each of these "horsemen" are ways to react to your partner without respect either for yourself or the other person, they also apply to being assertive.
When you criticize the other person, you attack the other person's character, usually with the goal of pointing out how the other person is wrong in some way. This is usually experienced as demeaning and disrespectful.
When you use contempt, the word by definition means that you are looking down on the other person. If you are employing such disregard for the other person, you are not acting out of respect. Respect requires that you assume that the other person is worth knowing, and if you remove the respect and look down on the other person, the assertive connection is lost.
When you are defensive, the communication is broken because you are focused on convincing the other person that you are too right or that you did NOT make a bad decision, etc. When you move into defensiveness, you in effect erect a wall between yourself and the other person, disrupting the possibility of connection. In essence, the defensive person pulls for the other person to take care of him/her, disregarding the issue at hand.
When you are stonewalling, you are not open to any other view than your own. Again, this is not respectful because you are not allowing the possibility that the other person may have something to contribute that is of value. Usually stonewalling includes withdrawing from the relationship in a passive pull to get the other person to come over to your way of thinking. Stonewalling may also be used to avoid conflict.
Note: these four horsemen may be present nonverbally as well as verbally.
- Criticism can be demonstrated non-verbally by shaking one's head "No" as the other person is speaking.
- A prime demonstration of contempt is to roll one's eyes. Eye rolling implies that you have disdain for the other person.
- Defensiveness can be read non-verbally if a person looks as if he/she is backing away or mentally warding off a blow
- Stonewalling can occur non-verbally by leaving the room, refusing to speak to the other person, or muttering under your breath.