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  • Writer's pictureHelen Dempsey-Henofer

Outsmarting the horsemen

navigating relationship frustration

Hey Hey Hey Fellow Human,

I talk about relationships a lot. I'm not a relationship or couples' counselor because I enjoy working directly with individual clients. Dedicated 1:1 time is where I do my best work at this stage of my therapist journey. In talking with people about their relationships, frustration is a common part of the conversation. If you're in relationships with other humans my guess is you sometimes encounter frustrations as other people have their own experiences, motivations, and nervous systems. Quickly, I'd like to share with you what not to do in the face of frustration.

Content warning: religious references are present further in this text (names given to tools by other researchers and therapists).

Admittedly, I'm enamored with these patterns that relationship experts the Gottmans call The Four Horseman because the name they've given these behaviors connects with my love of Neil Gaiman's Good Omens series on Netflix. If you also share my love of independent comics (and movies and TV based on them) and are down for a spoiler: here's a summary of Gaiman's four horsemen found in Good Omens.

Thanks for detouring with me. Back to relationships!


The Gottmans choosing to name these traits "the four horseman" was probably not inspired by comic book author Neil Gaiman, and could be a trauma trigger. While I'd like to make the Gottmans' work more easily accessible for folks with religious trauma... (perhaps with the help of comic books and Neil Gaiman?) I also acknowledge that the possibility of the phrase being a trigger exists. Be gentle with yourself.

The idea from the Gottmans is that the four horsemen of relationships can be relationship-ending, much like the four horsemen in Good Omens are world-ending. So, with no further ado, your list of what to look out for (the four horsemen):

  1. Criticism: Vulnerable intimate relationships include sharing feelings, including complaints, but watch out for when this becomes an attack on character. Notice whether you're using always and never.

  2. Contempt: Are you holding onto anger and frustration?

  3. Defensiveness: Do you prickle or find yourself quick to argue when your partner gives you feedback?

  4. Stonewalling: Do you withdraw and shut your partner out?

When you find yourself engaging in these patterns, ask yourself: what is the impact? Does this connect with what I want for my relationship, how I want to be as a partner? If you find yourself thinking But my partner's not prioritizing this! Why should I be responsible for it? (hello, Contempt) there are times when anger and frustration make sense. These feelings aren't the relationship killers: it's holding onto them that gets between you and the relationship.

So, how can you outsmart the horsemen?

Really, there are just two things. Both are essential to mindful conversations.

  1. Criticism & Contempt: Get curious. What's going on for you here? Are there needs that you need to attend to or want your partners support with? Using curiosity you can implement these techniques:

    1. Brené Brown's technique of noticing your story may help. Once you're aware of what's going on your you, you might say: "When X, the story I tell myself is Y. Can I check that out with you?" Ex: "When you don't acknowledge me when I get home, I tell myself that you don't think I'm important. Can I check that out with you?"

    2. If you want your partner to do something differently, rather than criticize what they're doing, acknowledge your wants. What do you want from them? Let them know. Saying what you do want tends to be much more effective than focusing on what you don't. When it happens, express appreciation.

  2. Defensiveness & Stonewalling: Be open.

    1. Relationships are not all butterflies and body glitter. They're not even all warm fuzzies. Frustration is going to come up. Sometimes your partner will be frustrated with you and when they communicate it (even if it's in the form of one of our horsemen) you might move away from defensiveness by thinking of it as a bid for connection. While it doesn't feel good to be confronted with your partner's frustration, there is often an opportunity in it to better understand your partner's want and needs.

    2. It's sometimes necessary to set boundaries and, when you notice yourself becoming unsettled, stepping away until you cool down can help you to be the partner you want to be. You may be familiar with the phrase, "I'm sorry for what I said when I was hungry." It's not just hunger, but the whole array of feelings sometimes take over. Check in with yourself. What are your needs? If feelings have taken over and you notice yourself not being present with your partner, try to communicate it. "Let's talk about this once I've got the resources to be more present. I need some time." Communicating what you're doing and why may help reassure your partner. This is different from stonewalling, which often leaves people feeling abandoned. When you're able to do so, come back and express your thoughts and feelings.

I'd mentioned that these skills, openness and curiosity, are part of mindful conversations. A mindful conversation simply means to move away from listening to respond, and moving toward listening wholly: with openness and curiosity. It tends to not be the default, as our brains like to keep us protected and separate. In a healthy relationship, being a fortress of solitude ain't the goal. Openness and curiosity is worth practicing.

Reading a letter isn't therapy. If you're in Virginia and looking for a therapist, visit the website to schedule a free consultation. While not a substitution for the individual care of mental health treatment, what the letter does is it puts therapy concepts into writing so that they can be accessed more widely. If you know someone who'd benefit, forward this on to them. There are two ways to sign up, a consent checkbox for new clients in intake, or easy-peasy from the website... available for anyone.


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