Althought Therapy

The Four Horsemen:
Overcoming Unhealthy Communication in Couples

Do you ever find yourself feeling worse after walking away from an argument with your partner, questioning whether bringing up the topic was a mistake to begin with? It’s not uncommon. Unhealthy communication patterns can often leave us feeling diminished rather than resolved. Healthy communication aims to transform conflict into a pathway for emotional closeness and mutual understanding. Yet, when we fall into patterns of blaming, criticizing, becoming defensive, or even harboring contempt for our partner, we only further the emotional divide between us.


Drs. John and Julia Gottman, two esteemed clinical psychologists, have dedicated four decades to the study and improvement of couple relationships through direct client work and rigorous research. Their findings reveal four key communication styles that significantly forecast relationship troubles and a heightened likelihood of divorce, with contempt emerging as the most potent harbinger among them. These styles, which the Gottmans have aptly named “The Four Horsemen,” include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Unhealthy Communication in Couples


Criticism involves verbally attacking or blaming your partner, which is distinct from expressing a complaint or a specific critique. Unlike offering constructive feedback, criticism often targets your partner’s personality or character. To illustrate the difference, consider the following examples.


Critique: “Could you please call or text me if you’re going to be late? I worry when you don’t arrive home as expected.”


Criticism: “Why don’t you ever inform me when you’re running late? Is it laziness, or do you simply not care about anyone but yourself? You seem so selfish.”


The critique is clear and avoids blaming the partner. It directly communicates a need (for the partner to call or text if running late) and explains the emotional impact of the partner’s actions without attacking their character. Conversely, the criticism assaults the partner’s character, suggesting they are selfish and inconsiderate. Although both examples stem from the same concern—the lack of communication when one partner will be late—the latter unfairly assigns blame, likely provoking defensiveness and mutual criticism.

Among the “four horsemen,” criticism is comparatively the least damaging to relationships. Nonetheless, it can cause feelings of rejection and hurt, potentially escalating to more frequent use of all four damaging communication styles. The more these styles pervade a relationship, the more communication deteriorates, reinforcing unhealthy patterns.


Defensiveness typically arises as a reaction to criticism and often serves as a tactic aimed at deflecting a partner’s critiques. Unfortunately, this approach is largely ineffective, as it rarely succeeds in its aim to deter criticism and typically exacerbates the cycle of unhealthy communication instead.

Consider the following scenario:

Question: “Did you manage to pick up some milk from the store on your way home today, as I requested this morning?”

Defensive Response: “No, I was swamped all day with other tasks you wanted me to handle. Why couldn’t you have done it yourself? You’re aware I can’t juggle everything around here.”

Non-defensive Response: “I’m sorry, I completely forgot about the milk. You did mention it this morning, and I had agreed to pick it up. My apologies for overlooking that.”

In this scenario, the question was simply whether milk was picked up from the store. The second partner’s defensive reply aims to shift blame by citing busyness with other tasks and questioning why the first partner didn’t complete the task themselves. Conversely, the non-defensive response illustrates an acceptance of responsibility for forgetting the milk, without attempting to shift blame back to the questioning partner. This approach acknowledges the oversight directly and respectfully.



Contempt, while akin to criticism, takes a more severe toll on relationships, standing as the most potent predictor of divorce. This form of communication involves asserting moral superiority over your partner, embodying a mean-spirited form of interaction that includes disrespect, sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, and dismissive body language like eye-rolling or scoffing. The underlying aim of contempt is to demean the other person, making them feel belittled and despised.

The perils of contempt extend beyond emotional damage, as it’s linked to an increased risk of physical ailments, such as colds or the flu. This correlation arises from contempt being rooted in deep-seated disgust and negative sentiments towards a partner. It often results in negative sentiment override (NSO), a state where neutral or positive actions are perceived negatively.

Consider the scenario: “Oh, you think you’re so special with your fancy car and high-profile office, don’t you? Why don’t you think about anyone other than yourself? You’re always at the office ‘playing with the big boys,’ never home for dinner with me and the kids.” Here, one partner’s use of contempt is evident through mockery and ridicule, aiming to diminish the other’s sense of worth.



Stonewalling typically arises as a reaction to contempt and involves one partner completely withdrawing from the conversation or interaction. This withdrawal can manifest in several ways, such as tuning out quietly, physically distancing oneself, pretending to be busy, or engaging in activities that divert attention away from the discussion.

The transition to using stonewalling as a coping mechanism usually develops over time, and once it becomes entrenched, breaking this pattern can be challenging. Often, the person resorting to stonewalling feels overwhelmed or “flooded” with emotion, rendering them incapable of engaging in rational communication at that moment.

In such situations, it can be helpful for the couple to agree on taking a temporary break. This pause allows both individuals to calm down and regain their composure. However, it’s crucial to establish a specific timeframe for when the conversation will be revisited, ensuring that both partners are committed to addressing the issue constructively.

Using Couples Therapy to Increase Effective Communication

Engaging in couples therapy stands out as a profoundly effective method for improving communication dynamics between partners. In this therapeutic environment, a skilled therapist guides couples through a journey of discovering and practicing effective communication strategies. The overarching aim of both couples therapy and marriage counseling is to cultivate a deeper understanding and stronger connection through enhanced communication. This process not only addresses current communication challenges but also equips partners with the tools necessary to navigate future conversations and conflicts more effectively.

Within the supportive framework of therapy, couples are encouraged to participate in structured dialogue sessions, which typically last from seven to ten minutes. These sessions are carefully designed to create a safe and non-judgmental space for partners to express themselves openly and honestly. Following these practice dialogues, couples receive personalized feedback from their therapist. This feedback is invaluable, as it highlights areas of strength and offers constructive suggestions for areas where there is room for improvement. Through this iterative process of practice and feedback, couples gradually develop and refine their communication skills, leading to healthier and more fulfilling relationships.