Althought Therapy

From Conflict to Clarity:
Countering the Four Horsemen in Couples Communication

In a previous blog post, we discovered what the Gottmans refer to as the ‘Four Horsemen’ of couples’ communication. While all four communication styles negatively affect your relationship, contempt and stonewalling are the two most dangerous, and when they occur, they are the most detrimental to your relationship. However, the presence of these four communication styles in your relationship doesn’t mean that it is doomed. There are ways to turn things around and repair your communication. Here are the four antidotes to the Four Horsemen.

couples communication

Gentle Start Up

One of the most common of the Four Horsemen is criticism. It is nearly impossible to completely avoid criticism in your relationship, as almost all couples experience it from time to time. However, reducing criticism is extremely important, as it often signals the shift from productive to unproductive conflict, escalating into unhealthy communication. Typically, when criticism occurs, the person being criticized resorts to another one of the Four Horsemen—defensiveness—to protect themselves.

Criticism involves attacking someone’s character instead of addressing an issue without attacking the other person. An example of criticism is saying, ‘You are so lazy. Why don’t you ever help out around the house?’ In contrast, a gentle startup, which is the antidote to criticism, offers a calm and gentle way to bring up an issue. For example, ‘I would appreciate some help around the house. Could you help with cleaning up the dishes?’ In this second example, the issue is raised without attacking the person’s character, and a specific way for the partner to help is provided.

A gentle startup is one of the best predictors of how well a discussion within a relationship will proceed. Using a gentle startup allows your partner to hear your concern without feeling attacked or blamed. Thus, employing gentle startups to raise issues is the best way to communicate your thoughts and feelings with your partner.

Taking Responsibility

The second most common of the Four Horsemen is defensiveness, which often arises as a consequence of receiving criticism. Defensiveness occurs when we try to protect ourselves by acting as the innocent victim or adopting a righteous stance. In feeling defensive, we are essentially attempting to shift blame to our partner, deflecting responsibility from ourselves.

This behavior typically leads to further escalation of the issue and a cyclical pattern of criticism and defensiveness.

The best antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility. This means acknowledging your part in the issue. For example, a defensive response might be, ‘I have to make us leave early because you’re always running late!’ Here, the individual is deflecting responsibility onto their partner and blaming them for the problem. However, if the partner were to take responsibility for their role in the issue, their response might be different. For instance, ‘I can try to be more flexible about when we leave; I feel stressed when I worry we might be late to something.’ In this second example, the partner acknowledges their part in the issue and provides further insight by explaining how the prospect of being late causes them stress. Often, understanding each other better leads to a more open and sympathetic response to concerns.


Build a Culture of Appreciation and Respect

Contempt is one of the most detrimental of the Four Horsemen. It goes beyond mere criticism to include actions or statements that come from a place of feeling superior to one’s partner. It’s characterized by sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor.

An example of contempt occurs during a discussion when one partner suggests, ‘How about we try that new Italian restaurant downtown on Saturday?’ The other partner, already frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of involvement in household responsibilities, responds with heavy sarcasm, ‘Oh, sure, because what you really need is another bowl of pasta. Maybe after that, you can finally fix the leaking faucet in the kitchen, or is that too much to ask for?’

In this response, the second partner not only dismisses the original suggestion but also implies that their partner is incompetent and lazy. Such sarcasm tends to make the partner feel belittled and disrespected. This example shows how contempt can escalate a simple conversation into a painful exchange, further damaging the relationship’s emotional connection.

The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation and respect in your relationship. One way to achieve this is by following the ‘Small Things Often’ approach advocated by the Gottmans. This includes regularly showing and expressing appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner. By consistently expressing these positive feelings, you create an overall positive perspective in your relationship, which acts as a buffer against negative feelings when they occur. An additional benefit of this practice is that the more accustomed you become to expressing positive feelings, the less likely you are to express contempt.

Another method for creating a culture of appreciation and respect is to adhere to the 5:1 or ‘magic ratio’ of positive to negative interactions necessary for a successful relationship. Having five or more positive interactions for every negative one means you’re regularly making deposits into your ’emotional bank account,’ keeping your relationship healthy and ‘in the green.’

Physiological Self-Soothing

Stonewalling occurs when one partner withdraws from an interaction, shutting down dialogue and demonstrating disengagement from the conversation. Here’s an example illustrating stonewalling in a relationship:

During a heated argument about finances, one partner says, “We really need to discuss our budget and figure out how we’re going to manage our expenses better.”

The other partner, feeling overwhelmed and not wanting to continue the discussion, simply picks up their phone, starts scrolling through social media, and completely ignores their partner’s attempts to continue the conversation. Despite repeated attempts by the first partner to engage and seek a resolution, the stonewalling partner remains silent, avoids eye contact, and does not respond, effectively shutting down any possibility of productive communication.

In this scenario, the act of picking up the phone and ignoring the partner’s attempts to communicate serves as a clear example of stonewalling. This behavior can lead to a breakdown in communication and contribute to feelings of frustration and loneliness in the relationship.

The antidote to stonewalling is physiological self-soothing. Self-soothing is a crucial skill, especially when conflict escalates in a relationship. It allows you to calm your emotions, maintain your composure, and respond more thoughtfully rather than reactively. Here are some strategies to self-soothe during heated moments:

  • Take a Time-Out: Recognize the signs that you’re becoming overwhelmed (e.g., your heart rate increases, you feel hot, or your thoughts start racing) and kindly ask for a break. It’s important to specify that you need this time to calm down and that you intend to return to the conversation. A 20-30 minute break can be very effective.
  • Breathe Deeply: Deep breathing activates your body’s relaxation response. Try inhaling slowly through your nose, holding the breath for a few seconds, and then exhaling slowly through your mouth. Repeat this several times.
  • Practice Mindfulness or Meditation: Engage in mindfulness exercises or meditate. Focusing on the present moment can help detach you from the heat of the conflict. Apps like Headspace or Calm can guide you through short, calming exercises.
  • Physical Activity: Engage in a physical activity you enjoy, like walking, jogging, yoga, or stretching. Physical activity can help reduce stress hormones and trigger the production of endorphins, which are natural mood lifters.
  • Use Positive Self-Talk: Remind yourself that this conflict is temporary and solvable. Encourage yourself with thoughts like, “I can handle this calmly” or “I am in control of my emotions.”
  • Focus on Your Senses: Engage your senses to ground yourself in the present. This could involve listening to calming music, holding a piece of ice, smelling a fragrance you enjoy, tasting a piece of chocolate slowly, or touching a texture that calms you.
  • Visualize a Peaceful Place: Close your eyes and imagine a place that makes you feel safe and relaxed. Visualize all the details—the sounds, the smells, the visuals—and try to immerse yourself in that tranquility.
  • Journaling: Writing down your thoughts and feelings can be a cathartic way to process them. It can also help you reflect on the root causes of your emotional response and think about solutions calmly.

After you’ve taken the time to self-soothe and feel calmer, revisit the conversation with your partner. Approach it with a fresh perspective, aiming for constructive communication. Remember, the goal isn’t to avoid conflict altogether but to manage it in a healthy, respectful manner.

Navigating the challenges posed by the “Four Horsemen” — criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling — is pivotal for the health and longevity of any relationship. Recognizing these destructive patterns is the first step towards transformation. By implementing the antidotes — gentle start-ups, taking responsibility, building a culture of appreciation and respect, and self-soothing techniques — couples can foster a deeper understanding, enhance communication, and cultivate a resilient bond. Relationships, after all, are not about the absence of conflict but about navigating through difficulties with empathy, respect, and a willingness to grow together. Embracing these strategies can turn potential breakdowns into breakthroughs, ensuring that love, not conflict, defines your journey together.



The Gottman Institute: The Four Horsemen, The Antidotes