It’s time. This is your Kairos…

The Four Horsemen

Dr. Gottman's 4 Horsemen

Dr. John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen” are communication behaviors that he identifies as highly predictive of relationship breakdowns. These behaviors are named after the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, symbolizing the destructive impact they can have on relationships.  These are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.  Do you experience any of these within your relationship? If so, Dr. Gottman indicates if these ‘4 Horsemen’ continue to exist within your relationship, there is a 94% chance the relationship will lead to separation and/or divorce.

It is vital for partners to gain in-depth understanding of these interactions and to develop the anecdotes to decrease these destructive patterns.


Criticizing your partner is not the same as offering a critique or voicing a complaint. These are about specific issues but criticism is an attack on your partner’s character. You are dismantling their whole being when you criticize.

It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and often leads to a  pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity, which typically leads to contempt.The problem with criticism is that, when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the three horsemen to follow.


Contempt goes beyond criticism. While criticism attacks your partner’s character, contempt assumes a position of being superior to them. Contemptuous communication in this state is mean, involving disrespect, sarcasm, ridicule, name calling  or body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless. Importantly, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce so it needs to be eliminated.


Defensiveness is typically a response to criticism is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel that our partner is accusing us unfairly we fish for excuses and play the victim to make our partner back off. This strategy however is almost never successful.  Making excuses tells our partner that we don’t take their concerns seriously and that we won’t take responsibility. Although it is understandable to defend yourself if you are feeling attacked defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if the critical spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner, and it won’t allow for healthy conflict management.


Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws, shuts down, and simply stops responding to their partner. Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, they can be evasive and tune out, turn away, acting as if they are busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a bad habit. Unfortunately, stonewalling isn’t easy to stop. It is a result of feeling overwhelmed, and when we stonewall, we may not even be in a physiological state where we can discuss things rationally.

The Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

Being able to identify the Four Horsemen  is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication and conflict patterns, you must replace them with healthy, productive ones. Fortunately, each horseman has a proven positive behavior that will counteract negativity.

The Antidote to Criticism: Gentle Start-Up

A complaint focuses on a specific behavior, but criticism attacks a person’s very character. The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame by using a soft or gentle start-up. Avoid saying “you,” which can indicate blame, and instead talk about your feelings using “I” statements and express what you need in a positive way. The antidote starts with “I feel,” leads into “I need,” and then respectfully asks to fulfill that need. There’s no blame or criticism, which prevents the discussion from escalating into an argument.

The Antidote to Contempt: Build a Culture of Appreciation and Respect

Contempt is destructive and defeating. Some examples of contempt include sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation and respect in your relationship, and there are a few ways to do that. If you regularly express appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner, you’ll create a positive perspective in your relationship that acts as a buffer for negative feelings. The more positive you feel, the less likely that you’ll feel or express contempt!

The Antidote to Defensiveness: Take Responsibility

Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner and saying that the problem is them. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.By taking responsibility for part of the conflict (trying to leave too early), even while asserting that they don’t like to be late, this partner prevents the conflict from escalating by admitting their role in the conflict. From here, this couple can work towards a compromise.

The Antidote to Stonewalling: Physiological Self-Soothing

Stonewalling is when someone completely withdraws from a conflict discussion and no longer responds to their partner. When couples stonewall, they’re under a lot of emotional pressure, which increases heart rates, releases stress hormones into the bloodstream, and can even trigger a fight-or-flight response.The antidote to stonewalling is to use self-soothing, and the first step of this is to stop the conflict discussion and call a timeout. When you take a break, it should last at least twenty minutes because it will take that long before your body physiologically calms down. Spend your time doing something soothing and distracting, like listening to music, reading, or exercising. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as it helps you to calm down.

If you are interested in any counseling services, please contact us today!

About Author:

Leave Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *