Romantic Conflicts: Four Horsemen and Four Personality Type Groups

Apocalypse or Bliss

Since much of the evidence has been anecdotal, the science of relationships has sometimes been a little mushy and theoretical in the past. It was hard to nail down consistent results, and research was less than rigorous or nonexistent.

That is, until John Gottman, his research collaborator Robert Levenson, and his wife and collaborator, Julie Schwartz Gottman, began to look at relationships through a lens that was more research-based, starting in the 1970s. They carefully studied couples interacting in various situations and used psychological and physical metrics to measure reactions. They even set up an apartment that served as a lab where they observed their subjects interacting. (No, the whole thing was not creepy. They told their subjects that they were watching them.)

(You can find more information about this study and other research projects on the Gottman Institute’s website.)

The team found consistent patterns that revealed much about couples and helped establish a model that described which relationships would or would not survive. They found that they could predict whether or not a couple would stay together with 90% accuracy. Not only that, but they also found that they could do so within three minutes of listening to a couple in conflict. In observing these interactions, they more or less discovered a canary in a coal mine for relationships that suggested dire results unless the pair could change the tone and style of their communications.

Gottman described four traps that can lead to unstable and eroding relationships. He called them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Four are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Conjecture and Roles

Those who read our material regularly know that Roles are groups consisting of four of the 16 personality types, defined by shared traits. In quick summary, Analysts are those who share the Intuitive and Thinking traits, Diplomats share the Intuitive and Feeling traits, Sentinels share the Observant and Judging traits, and Explorers share the Observant and Prospecting traits.

We thought it would be fascinating to think about which Role might be more susceptible to which Horseman. Although we have done a lot of research on the various Roles and personality types, none has overtly focused on the things that Gottman discovered. So assigning Horsemen to Roles, as we’ve done here, is purely conjecture based on what we know about the four Roles. This approach is not only a nifty way to describe different aspects of each Role. It also provides an interesting way to explore Gottman’s impressive research.

We are not saying that everybody in a Role is susceptible to the trap (Horseman) that we associate with the Role. Instead, we speculate that there might be a greater tendency for certain Roles to be more vulnerable to certain stumbling blocks. Our speculation also doesn’t mean that one trap is exclusive to any one Role. Any of the personality types may fall prey to any of the Horsemen.

This article also doesn’t suggest inevitability. The factors that go into the dynamics of being a couple far exceed personality types. As is generally the case, some relationships will survive while others won’t, regardless of personality dynamics. Hopefully none of the Horsemen will trample any of the couples associated with 16Personalities. But it’s also unlikely that everyone will escape this fate, our readers being as human as we are.

If you’d like to find out where you fit in all of this, take our free test to discover your personality type and Role.

Roles and the Horsemen

Analyst (_NT_) Personality Types – Criticism

Architect (INTJ), Logician (INTP), Commander (ENTJ), and Debater (ENTP)

Since Analyst personalities tend to see understanding and rationality as superior to feelings (and almost everything else), they can be critical of anyone who doesn’t meet their standards. As a result, some have occasionally been known to be condescending to those whom they perceive as “not keeping up.”

In Gottman’s model, criticism goes beyond a constructive critique. Instead, criticism includes an ad hominem attack that assaults a person’s personality and being rather than objectively deconstructing and assessing the things that the person does. In other words, criticism involves attacking the partner rather than dealing with the situation at hand.

So the problem, according to Gottman, is not so much complaining as it is blaming. This type of response may sound more emotional than how we think of Analysts, but Analysts are not without emotions and pride. And there’s likely little that they take more pride in than determining the rightness, wrongness, or effectiveness of something, which they establish through their intellect and data.

Depending on other personality trait factors, they may also be impatient when their partner is not aligned with their vision. And impatience can lead to damaging, critical speech.

Since Analysts are not as focused on feelings, they may assume that everyone else is the same way (or at least should be). As a result, they may see bluntness as a universal language and the only way to be honest. This perspective can clear the path for the Horseman of criticism.

“We are being audited. You keep the family’s books. How on earth have you managed to mess up our taxes?”

Rather than dealing with the issue at hand, the above statement makes the response personal. How can a partner not feel attacked with the accusing “you” being so prevalent?

Using “I” statements and talking about one’s feelings about a situation can turn what sounds like criticism into something more positive and palatable for a partner. Gottman referred to this as a “gentle start-up.” Such soft landings can make the difference between a partner feeling put down and a partner recognizing that something is important to their significant other.

“I’m worried about this tax audit letter. I’m curious about what the IRS found. But, whatever it is, we’ll get through it together.”

Gottman also gave a ratio for positive to negative comments during a conflict between successful couples. The ratio that Gottman and his team discovered for healthy couples’ communication came down to five positive statements for every negative one. The five reassure the partner that things are fundamentally all right and that there’s just this one thing that they need to address. Keeping that ratio allows a couple to weather storms while taking less damage.

If you would like to understand your relationship better, take our Intertype Test to learn more.

Diplomat (_NF_) Personality Types – Contempt

Advocate (INFJ), Mediator (INFP), Protagonist (ENFJ), and Campaigner (ENFP)

Assigning the contempt Horseman to a Role is a bit trickier because so much depends on the influence of other personality traits. For example, contempt is possibly more of a trap for Diplomats with the Judging trait than those with the Prospecting trait.

Diplomat personalities value high moral standards and usually adhere to some sense of fairness and justice. However, those with the Judging trait, Advocates and Protagonists, often possess a mindset that leans toward believing that things are supposed to be a certain way. This conviction might lead to contempt for those who don’t hold the same standards. This tendency may also apply somewhat to Mediators and Campaigners (the Prospecting Diplomats), only to a lesser degree.

But aren’t Diplomats supposed to be empathetic? This is true. These personalities value empathy and caring for others, but there can be a dark side to that sort of idealism. Carrying the noble banner of compassion can sometimes come across as condescending to those who can’t quite reach the high standards that even Diplomats themselves often don’t achieve.

How is this different from the criticism Horseman discussed in the Analyst section? Criticism goes after the partner’s personality and actions in a critical way. With contempt, the wound is deeper. Contempt involves attacking the partner as a human being. It implies that something inherent in the other person is somehow inadequate or seriously flawed. It goes beyond criticism. It’s devastatingly insulting. An example of contempt might be something like this:

“The way they treat other people. They’re just deplorable, the whole bunch of them.”

We need to repeat the following statement, because contempt is the ugliest of the Four Horsemen: remember, this is a sweeping generalization, and by no means is it meant to paint all Diplomat personalities with the same brush. Contempt is not necessarily something that is built into all Diplomats, but the potential to express contempt for the reason stated above may be there. With Diplomats, we point specifically to the morals/values aspect of this dynamic, but contempt can arise from almost any conflictual situation.

In fact, according to Gottman, contempt can cause irreparable damage. It’s an attitude that says, I’m better than you are. And that’s easy because you are (fill in the blank with any negative description of the partner as a human being). Even a partner rolling their eyes when they think that their significant other isn’t looking can create an atmosphere that subtly radiates contempt. With this Horseman, any sense of a couple as a team can dissolve in the poisonous climate brought about by disdain.

“It’s your turn to do the laundry, and you haven’t done it. So now I have nothing to wear to work. You never do anything that you say you’re going to. What’s wrong with you?”

It’s easy to see how contempt might quickly erode a relationship. Gottman suggested both a short-term and long-term antidote.

In the short-term antidote, like with the Horseman of criticism described in the Analyst section above, using “I” statements and trying to create a soft landing for the words spoken to a partner can diffuse tension.

“I need clean work clothes. I feel let down. What can we do to ensure that this doesn’t happen again?”

Notice that the complaining partner is not minimizing the situation, but they aren’t personally attacking their partner either. Instead, they are owning their feelings and not making their partner responsible for them. They are also making an effort to bolster the couple’s sense of teamwork by talking about “we” while suggesting that they search for a solution. This approach elevates the offending partner from being the problem to being part of the solution.

The long-term antidote involves making sure that there is plenty of appreciation throughout the relationship. There should be enough mutual appreciation expressed to cover the times when partners wish that they could take back the things they say. Can they laugh and have fun with each other and demonstrate genuine love? Is there a healthy amount of praise and compliments? Are gestures made to show that they value and cherish each other? Gottman called this “building a culture of appreciation.” Remember the 5:1 positive/negative ratio discussed in the Analyst section. Keeping that ratio is important.

Don’t know what personality type your partner is? Use our simple Type Guesser to find out.

Sentinel (_S_J) Personality Types – Defensiveness

Logistician (ISTJ), Defender (ISFJ), Executive (ESTJ), and Consul (ESFJ)

With Judging as one of the shared traits in this Role, much like Diplomats, Sentinel personalities are likely to believe that things should be a certain way. However, unlike Diplomats, Sentinels are more likely to turn the contempt from all of the “shoulds” inward. To deal with this, they may become defensive if their partner points out how they have failed to uphold a standard. A sense of duty is strong among Sentinels, and they may react poorly when someone questions whether or not they’ve done what they should.

With duty comes honor, and not meeting one’s duty can bring about a sense of dishonor. Our research suggests that Sentinels have no more shame than the average person. However, while 52% say that they rarely feel shame, that leaves 48% who do not endorse that idea in our polls. So, while Sentinel personalities don’t corner the market on defensiveness (or shame), the need to protect their reputation for being reliable may elicit a defensive reaction more easily.

When asked why they haven’t done the dishes when it’s their turn, a Sentinel partner might start making excuses and playing the victim instead of dealing with the much simpler issue of the still-dirty dishes. Likewise, a Sentinel may believe that their partner has attacked them, regardless of whether their significant other is being aggressive. Defensiveness might sound something like:

“Why should I do the dishes? I do everything else around here.”

While it may or may not be true that they do all of the chores, it doesn’t matter if an agreed-upon schedule assigns one of them to do the dishes at a certain time. Perhaps the schedule needs renegotiating, but until then a deal is a deal, and no number of excuses changes that.

The potentially defensive behavior of the Sentinel can leave bad feelings for both partners. The Sentinel is likely to buy their own defense and feel victimized, while the other partner feels confused, frustrated, or both. If this happens enough times or if defensiveness becomes a staple in the relationship, things can begin to crumble.

Gottman prescribed a simple antidote for defensiveness: taking responsibility.

“Yes. You’re right. Im sorry, I’ll get to the dishes as soon as possible. I’ll start washing them in the next few minutes.”

The Sentinel’s clean response shows respect for the other partner and their concerns. They can also feel good about sticking to their part of the bargain, even if they’re a little late. After defusing a potentially conflictual situation, the Sentinel can freely do what Sentinel personality types do best – they can take care of business without resentment.

Play our fun but insightful game designed to help you know your partner better.

Explorer (_S_P) Personality Types – Stonewalling

Virtuoso (ISTP), Adventurer (ISFP), Entrepreneur (ESTP), and Entertainer (ESFP)

Stonewalling is a reaction that usually happens when one partner is overwhelmed. The word often used is that the partner feels flooded, and it’s a beautifully metaphoric word. Picture the words and emotions cascading toward an individual like a large amount of water after a dam breaks.

Such things can overwhelm any personality type, but Explorers are less likely to want to process conversations and ideas, which they might perceive as somewhat cumbersome. (Note: Processing conversations and ideas is not an ability that Explorers lack as much as avoiding doing so is a style preference.) Instead, these personalities would rather fast-track toward a streamlined, action-oriented solution. Remember, these are the individuals who like to solve problems, not deconstruct and assess them. So when the words and feelings keep coming at them at a rapid-fire pace and feel somewhat abstract, it can be frustrating for many Explorers.

The most natural automatic defense for someone who senses that they are overwhelmed may be no defense. Shutting down may be a reasonable way to handle such feelings for most of us. It may be worse to address a partner’s issues in some reactionary way during times like this. Often, destructive words that they can’t take back are uttered by a partner who feels that they’re drowning emotionally.

I can’t stand it when you do this. Why can’t you leave me alone?”

When one partner shuts down, the other partner may think that they are being ignored or discounted. They may not believe that the stonewalling partner cares about them or their relationship. This Horseman not only creates emotional pain during that argument but may also begin to dissolve the sense of connection that made two people a couple in the first place.

So, the antidote to this is a natural cure. The magic words are “I need a break.” A time-out is not surrendering or retreating. It’s giving both partners a chance to stabilize their reactions and to regroup internally. A break should be limited. The one asking for the break should also propose a time to resume the discussion.

“I need a break. Can we talk about this in an hour?

Because a recess from the discussion isn’t an avoidance technique, setting a time to come back to the argument is essential.

Gottman talked about self-soothing during the break. Self-soothing is some way to get your head and body in a good place. The goal is to calm down. Watch a sitcom. Have a snack. Take a short walk. Gottman, in his research, discovered that 20 minutes of reading a magazine or doing something similar could change the whole texture of a conversation for the better.

The pause doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) spent mulling over your partner’s points so that you can create a good comeback. The break is more about recovering than about strategizing. Explorer personalities may have the impulse to create a quick fix during this time, but such maneuvering may not be helpful in the long run. The best advice for such a break is “just relax.” You may also want to set rules for these breaks with your partner beforehand. Agreeing that a time-out is allowed and essential helps the whole antidote go down easier.

Taming the Wild Broncos

Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship has probably come across the various Horsemen to some degree. There’s much to be said for watching our tone and attitude when interacting with others in any aspect of life. As an example, if a stranger throws contempt our way, it may throw us off and even hurt us some, but they’re a stranger. In many ways, it’s easy to ask, “Who cares?” But when interacting with someone we feel we should be able to depend on for support or positive regard, we’ve entered a particularly sensitive area. The wrong words can be devastating, whether we give them or receive them.

Fortunately, awareness and the antidotes advised by Gottman and crew can help us cut off or minimize any fatal transactions. We can successfully deal with any traps that enter our lives, if we understand the harm that they do and understand ourselves enough to know the part that we play in setting them. The “understanding ourselves” part is where learning about our personality comes into play.

What’s your take on all of this? We’d love to know in the comments below.

Further Reading

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