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Lockdown Breakdown: Beware of the Four Horsemen Prancing Around

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As relationship management is part of the topic in my upcoming webinar at the end of this month, ‘Wellness with Zana: How to protect your mental health during the lockdown’, I feel inspired to shed light on certain behaviours that can be detrimental to our committed relationships and mental health.

Our intimate relationships have a great impact on our happiness and health which inevitably greatly influences our goals and our future. And if it happens that you are married, the impact is huge because with this lifelong commitment normally we expect and we need to feel loved, understood, supported, and above all appreciated by our marriage partner in order to feel fulfilled and emotionally secure.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis has brought some unwelcome changes to our daily lives and many of us also feel those changes on different levels in our intimate relationships.

Whether you have a strong relationship or you are struggling with your loved one, the lockdown can be a stressful time for couples with increased tension and conflict leading to negative mental and psychological outcomes. Of course, it’s not all down to the pandemic crisis, but those relationships that were weak before the crisis are at a much higher risk of becoming even weaker and finally dissolving.

Although the emotional burden on everyone right now cannot be denied, there is still a lot you can do to either improve or destroy your relationship based on whether you manage it proactively by looking after yourself and your partner in the best possible way, or you let your emotional self-regulation out of control and end up harming your relationship irreversibly. 

As a psychologist, one of the simplest but most important relationship advice I’d like to give you is that you must absolutely avoid the four toxic relationship behaviours, that the psychologist Dr John Gottman, rightly named the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (FHOA). His evidence-based research shows that more than 90% of the times FHOA behaviours lead to break up.

These behaviours, as well as the feelings of loneliness and rejection, are highly detrimental for any intimate relationship. For many people loneliness is frightening but it is even more frightening when you experience loneliness as a couple.

On the other hand, secure emotional bond and physical intimacy are a strong foundation for keeping love alive. But you can’t experience the benefits of love if you allow the four horsemen to wreak havoc in your relationship.

The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse

Keep an eye out for these counterproductive behaviours – criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling – and stop them if you want your romantic relationship to last. Do you and/or your partner ever engage in any of these behaviours?

  • Criticism. This refers to attacking one’s character or personality, rather than the behaviour itself and if it becomes your default behaviour even though deep down you know it isn’t right, communication with your partner becomes difficult. Do you mistake a complaint about criticism?
  • Contempt. This is one of the most damaging behaviours rated as the single greatest predictor of divorce. It usually involves mean sarcasm, name-calling, inappropriate ‘humour’, and total disrespect for you partner. If you feel the need to deliberately hurt your partner as much as possible because you have anger issues and are lacking emotional self-regulation, you need to seriously address this passive-aggressive way of telling your partner how you feel.
  • Defensiveness. How often do you make excuses to avoid taking responsibility for the behaviours that are hurting your partner? If your attitude is to project the blame onto your partner, or try to find faults in their behaviour just because they complained, then this shows that you are not actively listening to your partner and you are not taking their concerns seriously. This exacerbates the conflict further.
  • Stonewalling. This is a form of emotionally abusive behaviour where you give your partner the ‘silent treatment’ as a way of punishing them. You withdraw from communication to such an extent that you don’t acknowledge your partner at all when they ask you something or try to engage with you. Such dismissal of your partner’s presence makes them feel rejected and abandoned.

Turning towards vs turning away from each other

Getting married is easy, staying married is more difficult, and staying in a happy marriage for a lifetime is the finest psychological masterpiece, I’m sure you will agree.

However, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, sit down with your partner and communicate openly and objectively about any issues that exist, while guarding against the four horsemen at all times.

No relationship can survive without communication and putting off dealing with marital problems often results in your partner feeling resentment which further turns into anger. Avoidance does not solve problems; it only creates detachment. If you feel emotionally flooded ask for a break but, and this is extremely important, commit to returning to the conversation as soon as possible, or you will risk your partner to feel deceived and the negative dynamics between you two will remain and cause further harm to your relationship.

Happy marriages are work in progress which means that above all you need to avoid taking your partner for granted and continue to work hard on maintaining the love, respect and support for each other. But you already knew this, didn’t you?


Image credit: Freepik

Zana Busby is an experienced psychologist and author, having spent over 20 years studying and practising psychology and psychotherapy. 


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