Young couple whose relationship is threatened by Gottman's Four Horsemen of the apocalypse

Are the four horsemen of the apocalypse wreaking havoc on your relationship? 

If that sounds a little dramatic, allow me to explain. Many marriage counselors or couples therapists like myself are trained in the Gottman method of couples counseling, an action-oriented, evidenced-based form of relationship therapy based on the work of Dr. John and Dr. Julie Gottman. Through decades of research into what makes some relationships endure while others fall apart, the Gottmans identified four common communication patterns that spell serious trouble for the long-term prospects of relationships: Gottman’s four horsemen of the apocalypse. 

Research has shown that these four communication patterns — criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling — are good predictors that a relationship will fail. Though we all might engage in each of these patterns at times, they become a big problem when they become the default way you communicate with your partner. In my own experience working with couples in marriage counseling, I’ve seen it firsthand. If any one of the four horsemen are riding through on a regular basis, it’s time to get help for your relationship, stat. 

The good news is that these communication patterns are very changeable, and the first step to changing them is having an awareness of what these patterns look like and how they might show up between you and your partner. I hope this article will help you develop that awareness, and give you some good ideas for how you can begin creating new communication patterns that help you build a stronger, healthier relationship

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Horsemen 1 & 2: Criticism and Defensiveness

The first two horsemen, criticism and defensiveness, are favorite dance partners of one another. These two communication problems often trigger each other and happen in a cycle. A critical statement will often be met with a defensive statement, which will trigger more criticism, and before you know what is happening, the conversation is no longer focused on the problem, but on an escalating cycle of each partner trying to prove a point. 

Criticism refers to statements that target someone’s identity or a core trait of their personality. An example of criticism might be saying, “You are so lazy. You never wash the dishes or do any chores around the house.” 

Over time, statements like these can destroy a relationship for a few reasons. First, words like “always” or “never” are absolute statements that often take a conversation off track and open the door to defensiveness. Generally, there are exceptions to everything, so when you say something happens “all the time,” it is not completely true. Statements like these can be an expression of frustration and trying to be heard, but they become counterproductive when they trigger defensiveness. 

Statements that target the core of who a person is are hurtful (who likes to be told that a core part of who they are is bad?). The person making these statements wants their partner to do the dishes and more chores around the house, but their partner probably won’t be able to hear the reasonable request through the hurtful statements. Not only does criticism not accomplish its intended goal, it undermines the trust and emotional safety in your relationship.

Lastly, critical statements do not support change. It’s hard if not impossible to change a core trait, but it’s easier to change a behavior (for example, if you believe you’re “lazy,” you might not feel empowered to change that, but you can change the behavior of not washing dishes). 

How Criticism Creates Defensiveness

Defensiveness refers to a lack of accountability for how you might have contributed to a problem. This often looks like denial, with statements like “that’s not true” or “I didn’t do that.” Defensiveness can also look like “one-upping,” in which you acknowledge one misstep you made, but counter it with something your partner did. 

Defensiveness damages relationships because it prevents change from happening, as the first step to change is always acknowledging there is an issue that needs to be resolved. It can also communicate to your partner that they are not being heard or that what they are saying is not important to you. Your partner may feel invalidated and like you don’t care about their concerns.

Here is an example of what the cycle of criticism and defensiveness might look like: 

Partner 1: “You never listen to me. All you care about is looking at stuff on your stupid phone.” 

Partner 2: “That is not true. I do listen to you. You’re the one who doesn’t listen to me.” 

Partner 3: “See – that’s exactly what I mean. You always make the conversation about yourself.” 

Partner 4: “I’m not making it about myself. I’m just telling you that I DO listen to you.”  

Breaking Free from Criticism and Defensiveness

If you have a tendency to use criticism, focus on expressing what you need from your partner. Keep your complaint focused on a specific behavior that you’d like to be different, instead of a character trait of your partner. By asking your partner to do something different to meet your needs, and telling them how they might do this, you open the door for them to be able to make a positive change. 

If you feel yourself getting defensive, think about what part of what your partner is saying might be true. The statement might not be completely true – maybe you don’t only care about looking at your phone — but it is true that you sometimes get distracted by your phone while you’re spending time together. 

Here is how the same interaction could look without criticism and defensiveness: 

Partner 1: “When you’re looking at your phone while we’re having a conversation at dinner, I feel like I’m not important to you. Do you think we could put phones away when we’re eating, or figure out how to have some phone-free time together at night?”

Partner 2: “I’m sorry that me being on my phone made you feel unimportant. You are important to me, and I want to have conversations with you, too. I was checking my email because I’m in the middle of a project closing and I’m feeling really stressed out about it. How about I go call to check in and then I would feel more comfortable not checking my email for a bit.”

In this interaction, the couple was able to express their feelings and needs and find a solution that worked for both people. They were able to focus on the actual problem and find a compromise, instead of getting stuck in the criticism-defensiveness cycle. 

Horsemen 3 & 4: Contempt and Stonewalling

The last two horsemen also often interact with one another in a similar cycle. Contempt, which is one of the biggest signs that a relationship will fail, occurs when there is a long-standing negative perspective about one’s partner. 

Our brains naturally have a bias toward focusing on things that can hurt us because they want to keep us safe. For example, if you are camping and you go outside your tent and see a beautiful rainbow and a bear, you are going to pay more attention to the bear because that is what will keep you safe. The same happens when there is conflict in a relationship. Over time, you start to see a lot more bears than rainbows in your partner, which in turn leads to an engrained negative perception. That perception turns into contempt when you begin to feel you are better than your partner or superior to them in some way. This feeling is often communicated through sarcasm, cutting humor, mocking, eye rolling, heaving sighs, name-calling, and condescension. 

Expressions of contempt are often met with stonewalling. Stonewalling refers to behaviors that shut down the conversation, building space either emotionally or physically from the interaction. It could also include behaviors like leaving the room, the silent treatment, or responding with one-word answers like “sure” or “whatever you say” without engaging in the conversation.  

Stonewalling tends to occur because you are feeling emotionally flooded and need an escape from the conversation, so shutting down the interaction feels like the only option. However, it can be problematic because it does not provide for an option to revisit the conversation and find resolution to the conflict or problem that was being discussed. 

Breaking Free from Stonewalling and Contempt

To prevent the damaging impacts of statements made in contempt, it can be helpful to focus on expressing needs, similar to the solution described for criticism. However, this solution is a temporary fix when the problem is contempt. While it can help prevent damaging interactions from occurring, it does not fix the underlying problem of negative perceptions about your partner. 

If you find yourself feeling like you default to a negative perspective of your partner, it can be helpful to challenge your brain to notice some positives. I like to offer the challenge of trying to notice one specific thing that you like or appreciate about your partner three to four days per week and focus on what positive emotions that made you feel. 

For example, you might see your partner playing with the kids and realize that you love how present they are as a parent, and you appreciate their playfulness (even if part of your brain is still wishing they would take on more of an authority role). By intentionally appreciating the partner you have, you are challenging your brain to notice both bears and rainbows. This helps you see a more accurate picture of both the good and the bad in your relationship and in your partner, and it helps you feel more receptive to positive change in the relationship. 

If your tendency is to stonewall, try taking a break instead. When we get overwhelmed (or what we refer to as emotionally flooded), our bodies are not in a place to have a healthy, constructive conversation. We need time to be able to self-soothe and regulate. By taking a break from the conversation, you give both your partner and yourself time for emotional self-care so you can show up to the interaction differently. 

When I introduce breaks, I have three rules that make a break fair:

Rule #1 — Either person in a relationship can call a break when they need to. This request should be respected, because asking for a break communicates that the conversation is important enough to show up in a space where you are ready to talk. 

Rule #2 — There is a time limit on breaks. For example, you can say “Let’s talk again after dinner” or “Let’s take a 30-minute break.” This allows you both to know the topic will be revisited and not dropped. It can also help soothe the anxiety that many people feel when their partner withdraws, which can contribute to a pursuer-distancer pattern if it’s not managed. 

Rule #3 — Finally,use the break to calm your body down (take some deep breaths, go for a walk, read a book, play a video game, pet a dog, etc.) and then think about what you were trying to communicate and what your partner was trying to communicate so you can come back to the interaction ready to have the conversation in a more constructive manner. 

Eliminating Gottman’s Four Horsemen from Your Relationship

If you identify with these communication problems, or you can see these interactions happening in your relationship, you might benefit from working on them together. Working with a couples counselor or relationship coach who has training in the Gottman Method (an evidence-based, action-oriented approach designed to help couples change these communication patterns and improve the quality of their relationship) can help you make deep, lasting change. It might even save your relationship

An effective marriage counselor or couples therapist trained in identifying and altering these communication patterns can provide support, guidance, and accountability. Together, you can find new ways of expressing yourselves and having conversations, even about difficult topics, that allow you both to be heard, feel heard, and to leave the conversation feeling more connected — instead of pushed apart.  

With love, 

Dr. Amy Smith, PhD, LMFT, CFLE

P.S. — If you’re interested in more expert advice on building a better relationship, check out our “communication that connects” and “relationship repair” collections of articles and podcasts.

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