How to Identify and Remedy the Four Horsemen of Relationships
Conflict is a normal part of relationships, but so many don't realize the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict resolution. The "four horsemen" is a concept developed by Dr. John Gottman to describe four unhealthy ways that couples argue, which lead to a relationship's demise: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.1
When I first learned about the four horsemen, it helped me become aware of my own behaviors in relationships and work on changing them. When I worked as a mental health counselor, I successfully used the four horsemen and their antidotes to help clients. Becoming aware of and changing these behaviors can turn a doomed relationship around.
A Look at the Four Horsemen of Relationships
- Criticism -- Criticism isn't the same as bringing up an issue to your partner. Letting your partner know you're upset with something specific that they did or said is healthy communication; attacking your partner as a person is criticism.2 I had trouble with this one early in my relationship because I would bring up past issues and make the argument about much more than the current problem. The antidote for criticism is a "gentle start-up," which means starting the sentence with "I" instead of "you" and following by stating your own feelings rather than placing blame on your partner.2 For example, you could say, "I'm upset because I was looking forward to spending time with you and didn't know you would be out so late," instead of saying, "You never think about anyone but yourself."
- Contempt -- Contempt is particularly damaging to relationships because it involves being outright cruel to your partner. Contempt looks like rolling eyes, mocking, name-calling, hostility, and sarcasm.3 When one or both people in a relationship treats the other with contempt, it can be the hardest problem to fix, especially when contempt was modeled for you in your family growing up. The antidote for contempt is respectfully telling your partner what you need at the moment and then making an effort every day to appreciate your partner to foster respect and appreciation. Building a "culture of admiration" takes time, but it protects the relationship from falling victim to contempt.3
- Defensiveness -- So many of us do this one. Defensiveness is when you react to your partner bringing up an issue as if it's a personal attack and shift the blame back onto them.4 I'm most likely to become defensive when I'm angry or not ready to accept my part in a problem. The antidote for this one is to listen to their point of view and take responsibility for some part of the problem. This keeps the argument from escalating, keeps it productive, and helps move toward a compromise.4
- Stonewalling -- Stonewalling can be hard to understand because unhealthy stonewalling and taking a healthy time-out from an argument seem so similar. Stonewalling is when you completely shut down and disengage from your partner. It can look like ignoring your partner or storming out of the room in the middle of an argument.5 Healthy time-outs are different because they involve communicating to your partner that you need a break to calm down and coming back to the discussion when you are calmer. With stonewalling, there is no communication or plan to come back to the problem after a break. Calling a time-out and taking a break to calm down is the antidote for stonewalling.5 I shut down when an argument is causing my anxiety levels to spike, but I practice letting others know that I need time to calm down before I can talk instead of shutting them out
Talk About the Four Horsemen with Your Partner
After I learned about the four horsemen of relationships and their antidotes, I shared this information with my partner. This helped us come to a mutual agreement that we would gently call each other out for engaging in any of them and shift to something more productive in our arguments. It helped me to recognize when I was criticizing, for example, so I could take a step back, rethink the situation, and choose a better way to communicate my feelings. If you want to improve communication in your relationships, talk about the four horsemen with your partners and make a commitment to work on avoiding them.
I hope you found this information as valuable as I did. Let me know what you think in the comments below.
- Lisitza, E., "The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling." The Gottman Institute, April 23, 2013.
- Lisitza, E., "The Four Horsemen: Criticism." The Gottman Institute, April 29, 2013.
- Lisitza, E., "The Four Horsemen: Contempt." The Gottman Institute, May 13, 2013.
- Lisitza, E., "The Four Horsemen: Defensiveness." The Gottman Institute, May 6, 2013.
- Lisitza, E., "The Four Horsemen: Stonewalling." The Gottman Institute, May 20, 2013.
Sabatello, J. (2021, October 11). How to Identify and Remedy the Four Horsemen of Relationships, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, October 17 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/relationshipsandmentalillness/2021/10/how-to-identify-and-remedy-the-four-horsemen-of-relationships