Relationships are dynamic and ever-shifting. Relational conflict can throw anyone for a loop! Fortunately, there are ways to identify patterns of conflict within a relationship. Renowned couple's therapists and researchers Drs. John and Julie Gottman have described a concept called the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse (aka, communication patterns that lead to unhealthy relationship dynamics) and how to avoid or repair from them.

When you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), some of the complexities of relationships become more difficult to navigate. Advice that is helpful for someone without OCD may lead an individual with OCD to engage in obsessions and compulsions with little relief to the relationship issues. This article will teach you how to tailor the Four Horsemen antidotes when one person in the relationship has OCD.

The Four Horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

  • Criticism generally includes “put-downs” and “you” statements from one partner to the other.

  • Contempt goes a bit deeper than criticism, because it often undermines the other partner.

  • Defensiveness includes statements like “I didn’t do that” if your partner accuses you of doing something wrong.

  • Stonewalling includes actions such as one partner saying “I can’t handle this conflict anymore” and then leaving the argument altogether.

Though the simple act of being aware of the Four Horsemen in your relationship is important, it can be helpful to have an appropriate response to these issues. For each Horseman there is an antidote, or alternative behavior to increase positive feelings within the relationship and change the communication pattern.

  • To counter criticism, one can use a “gentle start up,” where one partner shares their feelings using an “I” statement to express a need.

  • To counter contempt, one should build a culture of appreciation by verbally expressing gratitude for the characteristics they appreciate about their partner.

  • To counter defensiveness, one should take responsibility by understanding their partner’s perspective and apologizing for their part in the situation.

  • To counter stonewalling, one should take a break and self-soothe by engaging in pleasant activities rather than disengaging from the conversation completely.

For neurotypical couples, they may be able to assess their communication patterns and Four Horsemen fairly easily; however it can be more challenging to identify and implement the antidotes if you have a neurodiverse couple in which one partner has OCD. OCD’s paths are very predictable: they often focus on connections between thoughts and circumstances. For instance, someone with OCD might think “If I don't wash my hands, then I will be sick. If I don't check the locks, then someone can come in and hurt me.” These connections apply to thoughts about relationships as well. For example, “If I don't say the right thing, then my relationship will end.” Here are a few common obsessive thoughts and behaviors that can make identifying the four horsemen and implementing the antidotes difficult:

  • Rumination/ overthinking

  • Getting stuck on separation

  • Saying the “right” thing

  • Feeling “perfectly” in love with your partner

  • Compulsing through the use of appreciation

  • “Testing” your partner

  • Fixating on finding a solution

Rumination/ overthinking

A core characteristic of OCD is rumination, or over-thinking, which can make the process of identifying the Four Horsemen and using their antidotes more difficult. For example, with OCD you might get lost in your mind about whether your pattern of communication falls under “contempt” or “criticism.” In order to avoid over-thinking, read the descriptions once and be honest with your partner about whether or not you see yourself using this. Going over the descriptions multiple times could increase your likelihood of engaging in a “checking” compulsion and could lead to unhelpful rumination. Hear their feedback and move on. Be mindful to not become fixated on “perfectly” identifying which Horsemen you use, as this will keep you from being fully present in the moment. You may need extra support in getting out of your head and understanding. Talking to a trusted friend or family about specific examples can help you break the rumination component so you are more accurate.

Getting stuck on separation

If you have OCD you might also get hung up on how these types of communication can lead to separation. People with OCD are often sensitive to the possibility of the partnership failing, as it is typical for the possibility of a worst-case-scenario to trigger rumination or other “checking” compulsions. If there is a mention of potential break up, the person with OCD might engage in mental compulsions such as reviewing past conversations for signs of one partner wanting the relationship to end or repeatedly asking their partner if they are going to break up.

If you find yourself getting hung up on reviewing the historical record for signs of your partner wanting to break up, it can be helpful to remind yourself that this is your OCD trying to identify the wrong problem to focus on. Instead, you can challenge the mental compulsion of reviewing and checking by focusing on what actions you can do in the moment to facilitate better communication and accept the uncertainty of relationships in general.

Saying the “right” thing

The antidote to criticism is to use “I” instead of “you” statements, to increase accountability. However, identifying accountability or trying to follow a formulaic response can be difficult for someone with OCD because it wants the brain to have complete certainty about what will happen in your relationship. In response to this uncertainty, OCD brains fixate on trying to identify the “right” thing to say that will magically avoid the catastrophe of the relationship ending. Before saying something you are unsure about to your partner, preface it with “this is a rough draft, I’m working on the Four Horsemen.” Explain to your partner that you are going to give a “rough draft” in order to work out the kinks of communication. This gives you permission to not have it all figured out before you respond and your partner will have more grace for you not knowing exactly what to say. If your OCD is keeping you in your head about what you want to say, notice it, and say something even if it is potentially “wrong.” You don’t have to know what the outcome will be before you say it, and trying to “figure it out” will keep you from having any conversation and can create more distance in the relationship.

Feeling “perfectly” in love with your partner

The antidote to contempt is building a culture of appreciation, which can feel difficult when you have OCD. You might be tempted to only share your appreciation when you feel “perfectly” in love with your partner or “perfectly” aligned with the feeling of appreciation for them. For people with OCD, in addition to having the pressure of wanting things to be “perfect” or “just right”, the feeling of incongruence (feeling hurt yet being prompted to express appreciation), can feel like a barrier to action. This expectation violation (i.e. not feeling perfectly in love or misalignment between feelings and behaviors) can create distress because it violates the OCD desire to follow the “formula.” The solution is to challenge the desire to have everything in alignment or fit the formula perfectly, and instead, focus on engaging in behaviors that promote connection and repair in relationships.

Compulsing through the use of appreciation

On the other hand, creating a culture of appreciation can unknowingly trigger using appreciation as a compulsion. For example, if you find yourself saying “I love you,” to your partner a certain number of times, this can be a sign of a compulsion. A way to test for this is by asking yourself “would it make me feel anxious right now to not say this to them?” If the answer is “yes”, be curious and ask yourself “why?” If you recognize that you are giving appreciation to manage your OCD catastrophization that says “bad things will happen if you don’t give appreciation,” then it might be helpful to challenge that OCD narrative and practice giving appreciation tied to specific behaviors that warrant acknowledgement.

“Testing” your partner

Taking responsibility for your actions is the antidote to defensiveness, which is difficult for anyone, but presents unique challenges for those with OCD. Don’t wait for yourself to feel “perfectly” sure you are not in the wrong to avoid admitting you have messed up. Someone with OCD might feel hung up on not admitting they were wrong to their partner because they want to “test” their partner by seeing if they are the “right” person for them. People with OCD are extremely in tune with signs of danger. If they feel their partner is not reciprocating 100%, they might become obsessed with what this means about their partnership and if they should be together. Someone without OCD might be able to handle the uncertainty about their partner’s reciprocity with more ease, as they are not as likely to become fixated on the worst case scenario. It might be helpful for someone with OCD to challenge the desire for certainty or evidence for 100% reciprocity and instead focus on initiating behaviors that can lead to resolution. This means taking accountability even when it may feel like the other person isn’t stepping up equally.

Being comfortable with lack of resolution

Self-soothing is the antidote to stonewalling, which can be difficult for people with OCD. Conflict may feel unresolved, leading to increased anxiety. Because OCD centers around engaging in proactive behaviors to ward off potential catastrophes, the idea of taking a break to self-soothe can feel like a non-action. As a result, you may feel tempted to continue the conflict even though it is unhelpful, instead of taking a break to allow yourself or your partner to re-center. Giving space can be beneficial to seeking resolution, as it will give you both time to become emotionally regulated before re-engaging in the conflict. Helping folks with OCD understand these breaks are powerful actions might temper some of the discomfort with the emotional “time out.”

Conclusion

Gottman’s Four Horsemen and antidotes can be a fantastic resource for all couples. However, individuals with OCD may need to modify them so they don’t inadvertently activate unhelpful obsessions and compulsions. In summary, here are a few modifications to use within an OCD partnership. When you find yourself obsessing about the right thing to say when using “I” statements to counter criticism, have a discussion with your partner about “rough draft communication” and give yourself permission to not have it all figured out. When you build a culture of appreciation to counter contempt, allow yourself to say kind things to your partner even if you don’t feel them 100%, and be mindful if you begin to repeat them as part of a compulsion. When you take responsibility for your actions to counter defensiveness, remind yourself that you do not need to feel completely sure you are in the wrong before taking responsibility for your part. When you take part in self-soothing to counter stonewalling, give space to yourself and your partner to take a break from the argument, and let yourself feel the anxiety that will come with the conflict not being 100% solved.