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The Four Horsemen Romantic Relationships and How to Manage Them

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When does love end and become friendship?

Is there a time limit or happily ever after?

Why do some couples seem unaffected by the passage of time?

Why do other people repeat the same patterns in different relationships?


These topics are probably nothing new; most of us have discussed the secrets and obstacles of dating relationships on multiple occasions.

It is not surprising that it is one of the topics with the highest demand within psychology sessions or that it is something that worries us and in which we want to work and learn more.

We are social beings and dependent on the group (even for our survival) and probably due to the way we have articulated our relationships throughout the history of humanity, the romantic relationship is the chosen group in which we spend the most hours and in which that more projects we share.

Studies that try to discover which are the variables related to greater happiness, well-being, and even longevity have shown that, above aspects such as economic, labor, or social class, what most influences our subjective well-being are the relationships we have with other people and more specifically with close family.

How can we not worry about our romantic relationships then? How not to try to learn more about building and maintaining a healthy, exciting, and long-lasting relationship? But above all, how can one not be aware of difficulties and learn to navigate them?


Thanks to advances in fields such as neuroscience, today we know that our brain behaves similarly when it "falls in love" as it does in addictions, we also know that we tend to positively value everything familiar to us and that after a rupture we experience physiological processes similar to those we feel in a grieving process.

For this and many other reasons, it is clear that romantic relationships and, above all, their well-being within them, is more complicated than we thought, from the beginning of the relationship to its maintenance over time.

As a therapist, I consider it fair and fundamental that we recognize and stop trivializing these difficulties since each relationship experiences them, and normalizing them is the first step to get rid of that feeling of "what is the problem with me?" and continue to evolve. This is the main objective of this article, to raise awareness and show common obstacles in couples from current scientific knowledge.


In the classes that I teach in Personality and Individual Differences, we usually talk about the relationship between personality traits, the duration of the relationship, and emotional and sexual well-being. Different studies and meta-analyses have shown aspects such as extraversion (due to the ability to communicate love and needs), openness to experience (which leads us to try new things and learn), awareness, and perseverance (for orientation to long-term goals) positively correlate with maintaining a stable and lasting relationship and with perceived happiness within it.

But we must not forget that all these behavior patterns can be trained and also that they are only correlations, that is, we do not know what was before if the chicken or the egg. Do we show ourselves in the most communicative questionnaires, open to experience, and focused on having a healthy and positive relationship, or are these variables the ones that make us have a satisfactory relationship?

Going deeper into what we know in the field of science as possible keys to a happy couple, we know that at first, we worked on the idea of ​​“Quid Pro Quo”, that is, those people who had a sense of justice in their relationships were better able to last over time than those who did not feel that way.

But thanks to the advances in research and studies such as those of John and Julie Gottman (couples therapists, professors, and researchers at the University of Texas), we know that this need for "equality and justice" only appears in couples when they are already They find themselves going through bad times when they are in a state of alert due to not being comfortable in the relationship.

The Gottman method has shown high efficacy in couples therapy, probably because it approaches the relationship holistically, it focuses on the joint-life history, but also takes into account the learning and personality patterns of each of the members of the couple. Likewise, this method works on behavior, but without neglecting emotional regulation and patterns of thought and interpretation.


What we call the four horsemen of the apocalypse in a romantic relationship have thus been identified, these being the following:


  1. Criticism: An attitude of criticism and centered on blaming the other member of the couple for every little detail or problem, accusing their behavior, personality traits, or aspects of their family and/or life history.
  2. Defensiveness: The tendency not to assume responsibility and to be defensive in the face of possible criticism (which is usually perceived as an attack on my person and not as a behavior to modify). This attitude is closely linked to criticism since in addition to blaming the circumstances, the easiest way for the couple to defend themselves is usually to put the responsibility on the other.
  3. Contempt: A pattern of behavior both behavioral and verbal that delegitimizes or devalues ​​aspects of the other member of the relationship.
  4. “Stone-walling” : The tendency not to establish communication, not to deal with problems, and / or turn away from them, which in many relationships is perceived by the other member of the couple like turning your back on that person or the relationship.


Obviously, these 4 riders do not appear simultaneously in all couple problems, but one of them is usually found playing a leading role in the conflict.

It is right here where we find one of the main keys to understand and start working in a positive relationship. We know that the difference between a happy and satisfied couple and another that is not satisfied is not the number of conflicts that appear but their handling since we are capable of making a small conflict a big problem if we let any of these four horsemen between in Game.

But, now that we know a little more about scientific studies, about the evidence, and about these four attitudes as protagonists in romantic problems, what can we do with all this? How do I put it into practice?


  1. Real consciousness: As obvious as it may seem, it is as obvious as it is useful. We must cultivate awareness and try to identify these four horsemen, not only now when reading this article but in our day-to-day relationship. It is important to pause the conflict or before it begins and see if one of these riders is taking the helm and navigating the problem.
  2. Time out: Especially due to the difficulty of the previous point, since when anger, anger, or sadness are very active, it is more difficult for us to become aware and think more coldly.

    Something that we can try to practice is to take time out (it can be to take a walk, go to another room ...) trying to perceive that the problem does not have to be solved NOW and above all that it will not do it if we do not handle it rationally.

    In many couples, this time out is a source of conflict since there are those who “need” to resolve or conclude immediately. It is therefore important that this technique is consensual and is not interpreted as an estrangement but as an individual space to reflect and then work together again in the relationship.
  3. Emotional regulation: In the same way that we work on managing emotions in the couple, we must do it individually, first being aware of our emotional handicaps (which we all have) and then applying different psychological techniques such as cognitive restructuring, relaxation, acceptance, and subsequent distancing from emotion through mindfulness, self-compassion...
  4. Focus on common goals: Focus attention and behavior on common goals, nothing transcendental in principle, go from less to more, from sharing time together focused on a common interest (a walk, visit, series, talk about a book ) to the joint design of more medium and long-term projects.


As I said at the beginning of this article, our well-being is closely linked to the type of relationships we build, so how not to work on them, and give them the importance they deserve. It is true that our relationships are complicated by the fact of trying to fit two pieces of a puzzle that come with different forms created by the previous life, family models ... but it is also true that the handling of daily conflicts or the fact not handling them ends up being a much greater risk factor for the breakdown or discomfort in the relationship.

How many times have we ruined a pleasant moment or day by expressing ourselves from criticism, contempt, or taking a defensive attitude? How many times have we regretted not having communicated with our partner, having faced a problem, or expressed our needs?

The main problem with handling conflicts in this way is not only the amount of negative affect that we express but since time is limited and the day continues to have 24 hours and the week seven days, we are left with much less space to share positive affect and to enjoy the relationship.

I would not like to conclude this article without reminding you of the importance of becoming aware and normalizing problems and without encouraging you to ask yourself:


"How important is this relationship or this person in my life?"

"Have we always felt this way or maybe we are feeding our conflicts?"

"Is it worth working in this area of my health as I do with the physical and emotional?"



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