Gottman's Four Horsemen: Is There One in Your Relationship?
Updated: Nov 29, 2022
The arguing, the heated debates, the inability to have a conversation with your partner, making you feel unheard and misunderstood: it's exhausting. Maybe you've come to accept that this is just how your relationship is and nothing will change that. Maybe you lay awake at night hoping you'll wake up tomorrow and your partner will change. Maybe you've contemplated divorce, or even had a conversation with your partner about separating.
Communication is the lifeblood of every relationship. When we communicate poorly, which usually stems from communication patterns we learned from our parents, we sacrifice the ability to have healthy romantic relationships.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman are world-renowned researchers and clinical psychologists who have studied couples for 40 years and created a therapy modality to work with couples: Gottman Therapy. They have had immense success in their creation of specific tools and interventions that have saved marriages, helped couples learn how to communicate, and have helped couples see how their trauma plays a role in their relationship.
Today, we'll be digging into what Gottman calls "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" in relationships and their antidotes: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
The first horsemen that shows up in relationships is criticism. When we criticize someone, we are attacking a core part of their character. It's important to remember that voicing a complaint is different from criticism. Here's an example of the difference:
Complaint: "I was really annoyed when you didn't help me make dinner last night. I felt so overwhelmed by my day, and I really needed your help."
Criticism: "All you ever think about is yourself. You couldn't help me make dinner last night because you're selfish and self-absorbed. You never think about me!"
To combat criticism, we use gentle start-ups. A gentle start-up is a way of starting a conversation with your partner using "I" statements and expressing your needs in a positive way. An example of a gentle start-up can be seen from the complaint example.
If you notice criticism in your relationship, it doesn't mean your relationship is going to end up failing! Criticism just paves the way for the other Four Horsemen to rear their heads in your relationship. Being criticized causes a person to constantly feel attacked, rejected, and hurt, and soon there's an escalating pattern that begins, causing contempt to arrive in the relationship.
Contempt is the most deadly horsemen, and it's the #1 predictor of divorce. Contempt is a way of treating your partner with intentional disrespect by mocking them, using sarcasm, calling them names, mimicking them, or using body language like scoffing or rolling the eyes. The goal of contempt is to make the other person feel worthless.
Contempt: "You're sad? Get over it. I'm sad because I never get a night out with friends, and I'm the one basically raising our children while you get to do whatever you want and spend time with your stupid friends. Being married to you is like raising another kid. You're worthless."
When we have negative thoughts about our partner that have been brewing for a long time, contempt comes out. Interestingly enough, research has shown us that those who suffer from contempt in their relationship are more likely to have illnesses like the cold or flu due to weakened immune systems! It pays in more ways than one to completely eliminate contempt from your relationship.
The antidote for contempt is to build a culture of appreciation around your partner. Being intentional in highlighting your partner's positive qualities and going out of your way to express gratitude for positive actions will go a long way in eliminating contempt for good. Essentially, allow the positive things your partner does be the focus of the relationship, and not the negative things.
When we've been criticized, our initial reaction is to defend ourselves. Becoming defensive is something we've all done at one time or another. When the relationship is in rocky territory, defensiveness is all around it in almost every conversation and every interaction.
Question: "Did you schedule that doctor's appointment you've been talking about?"
Defensive Response: "Listen, you know how busy my day was. Do you think I had time tot think about that? Your day was less busy. Why couldn't you have just done it?"
Non-Defensive Response: "I completely forgot. My day got ahead of me, and I should have asked you to make the appointment for me. That's my fault. I'll call tomorrow."
As you can see, when we take responsibility for our role, it instantly diffuses the situation, which means that the antidote for defensiveness is to take responsibility. It's normal to become defensive when we feel attacked or we're stressed out, but responding defensively doesn't have a positive effect on the relationship. It escalates conflict because it's basically you blaming someone else.
Accept your partner's perspective, admit where you were wrong, and offer an apology if there was any wrongdoing.
The last of the four horsemen is stonewalling, which is a response to contempt. Stonewalling is when the listener completely shuts down. They're no longer listening, and they usually don't respond to their partner. Instead of turning towards their partner and engaging in the conversation, they tune out, act busy, or engage in something else.
Stonewalling is a physiological reaction that occurs when we start to feel overwhelmed. Stonewalling can become a bad habit that's difficult to stop, because once we're physiologically flooded, it might even be difficult for us to communicate at all. When we start to feel physiologically flooded during a conversation or argument with our partner and we can sense that we're about to start stonewalling, here's an example of something we can say:
"I'm starting to feel too upset to continue talking about this. Can we take a break for 30 minutes and then come back to this conversation?"
During that break, do something that soothes you. Read a book, go for a run, listen to music, take a shower, meditate, do yoga, whatever it is that's soothing for you, do it! The antidote to stonewalling is self-soothing. If we learn how to master soothing ourselves when we become physiologically aroused, it'll help us enter back into hard conversations with a level head and respecting and loving our partner at the forefront of our minds.
Take inventory on if there might be evidence of any of the four horsemen showing up in your relationship. If there is, try practicing the antidotes to the four horsemen you notice in your relationship.
If you're curious to see how well you know your partner, you can take Gottman's Free Relationship Quiz by clicking here. For more Gottman resources, you can visit Gottmanconnect.com.
At Root Counseling, we love working with couples to help them have healthier relationships, gain a better understanding of each other, and work to create goals they can reach together in their relationships. If you're interested in setting up an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.