Attachment Styles and the Four Horsemen: Navigating the Dance of Love and Communication for Lasting Relationships

By Gina Powell, LPC

Fostering healthy patterns: A journey of self discovery

Do your relationships enhance the quality of your life or are they weighing you down causing you stress? “The quality of our life ultimately depends on the quality of our relationships,” Esther Perel author and Psychotherapist best known for her work on human relationships stated. We develop and maintain many relationships throughout our lives which range from relationships with our families, friends, romantic partners, coworkers, mentors, community members and ourselves. 

Each unique relationship has different demands, needs and expectations which means that maintaining them can be complicated. Reflecting on the quality of our relationships is common and instead of viewing others as the area of concern, it can be powerful to look at ourselves and how we replicate patterns in our relationships. 

As we delve into the intricate landscape of interpersonal dynamics, the fusion of attachment theory and Dr. John Gottman‘s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse unveils a profound understanding of how emotional bonds formed in early life can shape the way individuals communicate within relationships. 

Understanding the foundations: Attachment styles

Attachment styles, rooted in our earliest connections with caregivers, influence our approach to intimacy and support-seeking. Understanding and using attachment theory to change our relationships works because it empowers us to make the necessary changes to ourselves that can dramatically increase the odds our relationship will change for the better.

Instead of spending time and energy trying to change our partner, doing the opposite can be more effective. What if we spent our energy trying to grow as a person and as a partner? We can reflect and use our energy to understand our own painful experiences and learn how to connect. 

Connection is an important piece of relationship change, especially when there is a rupture or conflict. Knowing what soothes you in challenging times and also what soothes your partner is a recipe for deeper connection. By working and understanding yourself and your relationship with yourself, you can change your relationship environment. 

Attachment Styles in relationships

Our attachment style is the bond we created with our caregiver which is developed throughout our life. We typically fall into one main category: anxious, avoidant, secure or disorganized. These styles impact how we interact with each other in adult relationships, including the fears that are associated with connection. If you would like to find out yours take this quiz:

Someone with an anxious attachment fears being unheard or unseen. This could result in not being responded to and can lead to emotional abandonment. This person may fight to be heard in ways like getting loud, protesting, demanding and being overly critical. In relationships this partner may struggle to communicate their needs directly, may fear infidelity, seek frequent reassurance, worry about rejection and people please while neglecting their own needs. 

Avoidant attachment in adult relationships may have a fear of failure or viewing failure of themselves as a weakness. There individuals avoid close relationships and may experience difficulty being vulnerable and intimate. These individuals have a hard time identifying their emotions, approach emotional conflicts with reason and logic, may want a close relationship but feel uncomfortable in a relationship. 

The secure attachment style is comfortable with closeness and knows that they are valuable and worthy of love. They communicate open and honestly within relationships and display needing their partner at times while also maintaining their independence. These individuals have the ability to be vulnerable and sit with their partner’s vulnerability. In relationships these individuals trust easily and have effective coping strategies and problem solving skills. 

The last style is a disorganized attachment style. These individuals have a chaotic and confusing inner experience. They tend to need closeness and distance in relationships due to feeling scared. They may display behaviors that are unpredictable and hard to categorize for those they have relationships with. They may be more combative in relationships due to experiencing conflicting feelings buried inside. 

Once we understand our own attachment style, this can provide insight to our own triggers, unconscious beliefs, vulnerabilities, protective feelings and behaviors. 

The ensuing examination of the Four Horsemen—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling—provides a lens through which we can scrutinize the communication patterns that, if left unchecked, may jeopardize the very foundations of these attachments. Together, these frameworks illuminate the nuanced interplay between emotional bonds and the language of relationships, offering insights into the dynamics that either fortify or undermine the fabric of our relationships.

The Four Horsemen in relationships

Relationship researcher, author John Gottman has studied couples and has identified four negative behaviors that can be problematic for couples, he labels these the “Four Horseman.” Gottman states that these behaviors can be predictors to relationship success and that they can creep into any relationship without much awareness. See if you recognize any of these in your current relationships today.

  1. Criticism: The first horseman is criticism which is different from a complaint or a critique. Your partner may forget to inform you that they are working late, or not arriving home when they usually are. A complaint may look like, “I’m annoyed because you didn’t let me know this in advance.” Valid feelings. However, when you attack your partner’s character and use words like “always” or “never” this is considered a criticism. This may sound like, “You always do this and I’m annoyed that you never consider my feelings.” These small yet powerful statements can become more and more pervasive within a relationship and can develop into the following horseman. These comments leave one partner feeling rejected, hurt or even attacked. This pattern can continue between partners and escalate in intensity to the next horseman. 
  2. Contempt: This horseman is cruel and goes beyond criticism. Contempt is a way of communicating that is cruel and disrespectful. Behaviors like mocking, sarcasm, ridiculing, calling someone names, mimicking or using body language like eye rolling or scoffing. This makes the partner feel despised and worthless. This assumes a position of moral superiority.This can be fueled by long simmering negative thoughts. This horseman is considered the most predictive of divorce. 
  1. Defensiveness: This horseman is usually a response to criticism. Most individuals have used defensiveness at some point, however when this becomes a consistent response it tells our partner that we don’t take their concerns seriously and that we won’t take responsibility for our mistakes. This response usually escalates a conflict since it is a way of shifting blame onto one’s partner.  
  1. Stonewalling: This is usually a response to contempt when one partner shuts down, withdraws from the interaction or stops responding to their partner. This can look like someone tuning out, turning away, acting busy or engaging in other distracting behaviors. When we feel physiologically flooded and we use stonewalling, we may not be in a place to have productive conversations. 

Partners who are securely attached try to stay out of negative cycles outlined above. Instead of using these tactics, they lean on vulnerability. This can include healthy communication and stepping out of your comfort zone. This may look like speaking from a place of self instead of blaming, talking about feelings and fears, staying in a difficult discussion when you want to leave, taking a break to avoid destructive comments or behaviors or trying to co-regulate your partner or letting them attempt at co-regulating you. 

Attachment Styles and the Four Horseman

Once we understand our attachment style and which of the Four Horseman we use frequently in relationships we can begin to recognize our patterns and what is needed to create change. 

Avoidant attachment styles are prone to shutting down when triggered or in crisis so they may find themselves using stonewalling more frequently. In these situations, being able to identify and label this pattern can help to understand our behavior in the moment and work towards a shift in pattern. Can we sit with this discussion a little longer to understand our partner? Can we try a different approach than what we typically lean on? 

An anxious attachment style may use tactics of protest like criticism or contempt to communicate versus communicating their needs directly. Recognizing the underlying fears associated within can bring awareness to the message we are trying to convey or the root emotion that we feel when we lean on these horsemen as a communication method. Instead of saying, “You never pay attention to me” you may want to use effective communication strategies like “I” statements speaking honestly and being vulnerable, perhaps stating, “I feel unimportant when you don’t respond.”

Disorganized attachments use combative methods and can use criticism or contempt as a tactic to instigate their partner. They may have partners that tend to display stonewalling due to feeling flooded with frequent ruptures or conflicts. Disorganized individuals may fear safety and trust in relationships. They may need a partner who is able to help them regulate their emotions in a safe environment. 

Secure attachment styles are not perfect and may rely on some of the Four Horsemen tactics from time to time. They may recognize these patterns sooner and have the ability to put healthier communication skills into practice. These individuals are able to self-regulate to break cycles that escalate conflicts. They create an environment that fosters cooperation and collaboration which leads to more emotional closeness. 

In conclusion, the symbiotic relationship between attachment styles and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse underscores the profound interconnection between our early emotional foundations and the way we navigate the complexities of adult relationships. Recognizing and understanding one’s attachment style provides a gateway to comprehending the origins of certain communication tendencies. 

Meanwhile, the Four Horsemen offer a stark warning, revealing destructive patterns that, when unaddressed, can erode the very fabric of love and connection. Armed with this knowledge, we can embark on a journey of self-discovery and mutual understanding, fostering a space where secure attachments can flourish, and the corrosive influence of the Four Horsemen can be replaced with healthier patterns of communication. By intertwining these two concepts, we gain valuable insights into the intricate dance of love and communication, illuminating pathways toward lasting, fulfilling relationships.

Relationships can be challenging, but you don’t have to navigate them alone. Chicago based psychotherapist GinaPowell, LPC offers compassionate support, treatment and healing strategies as you journey through relationships and the transitions of life. Gina works with couples, groups and individuals.