When I first learned about Dr. John Gottman’s work around the ‘Four Horsemen’ I was so impressed. By doing extensive research he had discovered four behaviors that are crucial for us all to both understand and to learn from. He based it on the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ and his message was clear — We need to mind these horses!
Dr. Gottman, after spending countless hours with couples, applies his work surrounding the story of the “Four Horsemen” to the marriage relationship. My take on the matter is that these principles can be applied to ALL of our relationships, including the one with money — Yes, you do actually have a relationship with money! And the horses can give you insight on how that relationship is going.
As long as there have been horses, people have been tasked to mind their horse, meaning to pay attention to what it’s doing. I think understanding and minding these particular horses is essential to all our relationships and interactions. Dr. Gottman has given us four of them to be attentive to:
- Blaming or Criticism: We know this one, right? It’s all about judgment and more snarky than a complaint. We may complain about something, but when we add a bit of character assassination, it turns into blaming.
- Defending: This one really got my attention when I read what Dr. Gottman said about it. You see, defending is really veiled blaming. “The dog ate my homework” shifts the responsibility away from you and to the dog. It just tends to add more blaming, instead of calming things down.
- Contempt: This one is more about tone and intent than the actual words. It includes things like sarcasm, mockery, eye-rolling, and name-calling. The best example is Dan Aykroyd’s classic opening Point/Counter-Point line on Saturday Night Live with Jane Curtin: “Jane, you ignorant slut…” Literally anything can be said in a contemptuous manner.
- Stonewalling: This one is all about distancing and disengaging. It’s the ultimate cold-shoulder. It increases the frustration of the person who is talking to you if you don’t respond or even look at the person. The word really says it. Originally it was a noun, meaning “an act of obstruction.”
It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that these ‘horses’ tend to travel in pairs. Blaming and Defending trot along together, as do Contempt and Stonewalling. And they both stir up a bunch of dust. I liken this to the Wild Horse Race at the Rodeo. If there an issue worth paying attention to in the center of the arena — Like an important topic to be discussed — it will be invisible and ignored, shrouded in all the dust and fury of the horses galloping around.
Okay, so there they are — four horses. And what do we do about them? It’s really a three-step process:
- First, when you find yourself facing a ‘horse’ you repeat this mantra as many times as needed: ‘It’s not about me, it’s not about me, it’s NOT about me….’
- Second, you avoid getting on a ‘horse’. Stop, don’t ride at all. Dismount.
- Third, in order to help the other person dismount their ‘horse’ try this:
- Instead of joining them on a ‘horse’, try acknowledging the ‘feeling’ underneath the uneasiness by saying something like: “Wow, I get when that happens it really bothers you.” Notice that you aren’t agreeing, or surrendering, or apologizing — you are acknowledging and affirming that they are in a tough spot. It just might slow the ‘horse’.
I know, I know, easier said than done. We all experience ‘riding horses’ in our lives. They are in our heads and in our relationships. Dr. Gottamn’s work can show us something deeper about your relationships. Try this small experiment if you will. Think of a horrible relationship from your past…we all have at least one of those to ponder. Got one in mind? Okay, now which specific ‘horses’ were present in your interactions with each other? Which ‘horses’ did you ride and which ones did the other person gallop into the arena? Now let’s ponder a different relationship. One where you and the other person got along really well. A ‘good’ one. Any ‘horses’ there? How does that positive interaction compare with the first one? Finally, just for grins think about how you are with money — any ‘horses’ trotting around there?
Intriguing, isn’t it? You can see why the concept of the ‘horses’ is something I cover early on with my clients!
What’s really going on with these ‘horses’? What’s underneath all this? And why do I say it’s “not actually about you” when the other person is on a ‘horse’? The answer is the most important thing for you to know about ‘horses’!
We get on a horse to quite literally, get a leg up. We trot out a horse when we feel diminished — when our sense of self-worth is low or is challenged, especially when we feel powerless. ‘Horses’ are a distracting way to pull ourselves up by laying the responsibility elsewhere. We see it constantly. A prime example today is road rage. Even children can be seen getting on ‘horses’ to navigate their emotions— but they usually do it more cleanly. It’s not hard to see when children are on a ‘horse’ because they have hurt feelings. It’s harder as an adult to be vulnerable and admit that we feel diminished or put down — so instead we mount up and charge in!
Understanding and taming ‘horses’ matters now more than ever. They are no longer just running around in our personal lives but are stampeding all over! It’s time to learn to mind our own ‘horses’ with care and diligence.
Shell Tain, the Untangler
Want some help getting off a ‘horse’, or avoiding each other’s horses’? Give me a call at 503-258-1630 or leave a comment.