Updated: Jan 9
The survival of relationships and marriages depends on authentic, effective communication and mutual respect. When damaging behaviours are present, they can cause considerable damage that is hard to reverse. However, it’s difficult to assess our own relationships when we are so emotionally tied to them – and that’s why couples therapy and marriage counselling can be so useful.
Noted marital psychologist John Gottman described this problem with a metaphor of the Four Horsemen: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. These behaviours can take hold and erode the quality and affection of relationships, so knowing how to identify and counteract them is a very useful skill for any couple to have. Today, we’ll go over the Four Horsemen and their unique antidotes.
What Are Gottman's Four Horsemen?
Gottman’s first horseman is criticism – targeted and personal attacks on your partner’s core character. Criticism is often mixed up with complaints, which are genuine concerns about specific issues and not with the person themselves.
Complaint: “When you forget to call me to let me know you’ll be late, I feel overlooked and unimportant.” Criticism: “You always forget to call, because you don’t care, and you never have!”
Criticism chips away at your partner’s self-confidence and focuses on perceived flaws. It makes them feel like the problem specifically lies in their character, and is therefore something that cannot be fixed without changing who they are. This leads to resentment and invites another horseman, defensiveness, into the relationship. Plus, it’s never effective at solving a problem!
So, what is the antidote to criticism? Gottman calls it the Gentle Start-Up: dealing with problems calmly and intentionally, focusing on their causes and solutions instead of the character of the person involved. He recommends calm, gentle language, the use of “I” statements (such as “I feel frustrated when…”), and a mutual discussion environment that works for both sides.
The second Gottman horseman is defensiveness, often stemming directly from an environment of criticism. Defensiveness is a form of self-protection that deflects blame or accountability for mistakes back to the other partner.
Comment: “Did you remember to call and book that reservation for tonight?” Defensiveness: “You know I was swamped with work all day today. Why didn’t you just do it earlier, instead of asking me?”
Defensiveness is a refusal to accept feedback, an inability to admit when we are wrong, and an avoidance of hard conversations about problematic behaviours affecting a relationship. It shifts blame back to the other partner, and it comes off as a lack of concern or an unwillingness to act with mutual interest in mind. The antidote to defensiveness is simple, though not always easy to do: step up and take responsibility for your actions, acknowledging negative behaviours without shifting blame. That’s really all there is to it! Show genuine remorse, use feedback as a means for self-improvement, and consider your partner’s perspective and needs alongside your own.
Gottman’s third horseman is contempt – and this one can be very hard to shake. Have you ever witnessed a couple arguing with angry, hostile words that seem unnecessarily cruel? That’s contempt, and Gottman’s research indicates it is among the most accurate and noticeable signs of impending divorce.
Contempt: Of course you forgot to call. Like always. You can’t do anything right, because you’re not smart enough to remember even one little thing when I ask.
Contempt goes beyond criticism – it is not only mocking and attacking your partner’s character, but acting as if you are superior to them. Name-calling, eye-rolling, insults, hostile jokes, and comments about intelligence or appearance are all rooted in contempt. Like a cancer, it will continuously spread, infecting a relationship (literally) unless reined in and stopped. Avoid this one altogether, if you can! It is possible to emerge from an atmosphere of contempt with the right approach. Gottman’s antidote is this: emphasize and remember your partner as a complete, profound, and emotionally rich person, fully deserving of your fondness and admiration.
Foster those feelings of respect and appreciation by showing affection, recognizing your partner’s strengths, and giving real compliments that come from the heart. Only through the consistent expression of love and admiration can you overcome this horseman and keep your relationship on track.
The last horseman is stonewalling: shutting down all communication and emotional investment, and refusing to engage at all. While this may be a conscious choice borne out of contempt, for some people it is an automatic response when they are feeling overwhelmed or trying to avoid a difficult discussion. Imagine building a physical wall between you and your partner; that barrier wouldn’t help solve any problems you are having. But that’s exactly the same effect that stonewalling has: one side is trying to address an issue, and the other side is pretending the issue (as well as the other person) doesn’t exist. It’s frustrating to experience, and difficult to recover from.
But there is hope! The antidote for stonewalling isn’t always easy, but with enough preparation, it becomes second nature. You can learn to recognize the signs of stonewalling as they appear, agree to take a break and calm down with deep breathing and muscle relaxation, and return to the discussion with clearer heads and hearts. This is what Gottman calls “physiological self-soothing”, and it is meant to keep discussions calm, focused, and beneficial for both sides.
Overcoming Gottman's Four Horsemen
Relationships are complex, and often, the only way to successfully navigate life with another person is to learn from the mistakes we make along the way. When it feels like your relationship is out of balance or simply not as good as it could be, options like couples counselling or marriage counselling are here to help.
At Flourish Psychological Services, we’ll talk through the goals, issues, and desires that you and your partner have, discovering where you want to be and how you can get there together. Our couples counselling sessions can bring you closer to a fulfilling and satisfying relationship – letting the love shine through with enthusiastic communication, shared intimacy, and reliable support. Reach out today to find out what we can do for you.