Welcome to the cornerstone of John and Julie Gottman's work from the Gottman Institute.

This work is a researched based predictor of divorce. It uses this biblical metaphor to describe destructive communication styles predictive of divorce. This work is researched based.

couple hugging free of Gottman's four horsemen

What are the Four Horsemen in Conflict?

In the four horsemen of the apocalypse, Gottman finds four behaviors destructive to love. Improving your relationship. these four horsemen, Gottman says, means learning to eliminate them. These four horsemen, John Gottman claims, are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt and are very damaging to a marriage.

You can improve your marriage by changing these patterns. It is a key element of working in the Gottman Method.

First Horseman – Criticism

Criticism is one of the four horsemen according to Dr. John Gottman

In criticism, you blame your partner. You frame your complaints as if there’s something defective in your partner, and it seldom works.

Every marriage has conflict discussions. But Gottman has learned that how you begin this conversation matters. Bad starts predict bad endings.

Commenting on your partner’s personality is criticism. There is a direct implication that something is wrong with your partner’s character. e.g.:

“You’re a jerk!!!”

“Can’t I complain?”

Of course. Expressing your feelings, even strong, powerful feelings is fine. But how you do it matters.

Criticism vs. Complaints

A complaint is not like criticism. A complaint is specific to a behavior you want to change. Criticism is an attack on the person. A complaint focuses on the issue.

What’s Wrong with Criticism?

You may feel angry and emotionally overwhelmed but making your partner the problem when talking about your unhappiness is seldom effective and damages your fondness and admiration system.

Complain about behavior instead.

Complaining requires you to be specific about the behavior you want to change. So in couples therapy, we want to focus on changing your partner’s behavior that is annoying you.

The “masters of marriage” complain. The “disasters of marriage” criticize.

It can be really challenging to break a chronic pattern of criticizing. We teach you how to re-word your criticisms and remove the toxic elements.

Second Horseman – Defensiveness

The second of the four horsemen is defensiveness. When you feel under attack, your response to feeling criticized is to get defensive. I say “feeling criticized” instead of “being criticized” because your perception is a driving force, whether it’s a true criticism or not.

four horsemen  Gottman

Defensiveness is an attempt to protect yourself, to defend your innocence or to ward off a perceived attack.

Sometimes it is done by counter-attacking or whining (innocent victim stance). e.g., “Me? Why are you picking on me? What about you?”

What’s Wrong with Defensiveness?

Defensiveness implies your partner won't impact or influence you. They cannot have an effect on you.

Escalating the fight is often the result.

The “masters of marriage” accept some responsibility for their actions. They don’t bat it back and ask themselves: "Is there anything I can agree with?" They don’t deny all charges!

Curing defensiveness means accepting some responsibility. You look for what you agree with, in what your partner says, not what you disagree with. You communicate:

“I hear you. You and what you say matters to me.”

Defensiveness causes things to escalate FAST! As therapists, we need to clearly identify defensiveness (e.g. You’re being attacked…) from perceived criticism. It is a difficult habit to break.

four horsemen

Third Horseman: Stonewalling

The Third of the Gottman Four Horsemen is Stonewalling. Stonewalling, seen mostly (85%) in men, includes nonverbal communication as the listener withdraws from the interaction while staying in the room. There is an effort not to give a clue that he or she is even listening. You will see this type of non-verbal behavior:

  • Looking to the side
  • Not maintaining eye contact
  • Crossing one’s arms

People often stonewall because they become overwhelmed internally…what Gottman calls “flooded.” Physiologically, their heartbeat races, and they stop thinking clearly. They get highly agitated.

Stonewalling is ineffective

Stonewalling is an ineffective attempt to calm yourself (or the situation) down, but often this doesn’t happen for two reasons:

  1. The person who is stonewalling is rehearsing negative thoughts over and over in their minds (“I can’t believe she said that! That is so unfair!”) and
  2. the person who is experiencing the stonewalling often finds it very upsetting to be ignored. They will attempt to re-engage their partner by escalating the conflict. In other words, they fight harder or louder

Learn to calm yourself down and then re-engage in the conversation actively. I teach ways to calm down using biofeedback instruments with people who Stonewall.

If women do most of the complaining, men do most of the stonewalling. It is helpful to help a husband recognize why he’s Stonewalling his spouse and help him to calm down.

Fourth Horseman: Contempt

The final of the Gottman Four Horsemen is contempt. Your goal should be to eliminate all contempt.

It includes things like verbal threats and name-calling, as well as nonverbal cues like eye-rolling and insulting.

We see the other three Horsemen in healthy relationships, but we don’t see Contempt when a relationship is working well.

Being contemptuous puts your partner down and takes a higher moral ground. They argue that they are superior to you. It may include belligerence – declaring an all-out war on one another.

Sometimes couples will mock each other. Sometimes they will correct each other’s grammar. The message is “I’m superior to you. You are beneath me.” or “Ya, right, you idiot…” It's a toxic mindset

Dr Heide Rodriguez teaching Gottman's  horsemen

Dr. Heide Rodriguez teaches skills of Gottman Four Horsemen to new parents in Puerto Rico & Florida.

Fighting Contempt…the Most Destructive of Gottman’s 4 Horsemen

The antidote to contempt means talking about yourself and not your partner. While ultimately we want to build a culture of respect and appreciatioin, that's not always easy right off.

Both of you may be feeling very unappreciated in this relationship, but attacking your partner isn’t the way to enhance their appreciation of your finer qualities!

To change this around, the long-term goal is to change one’s mindset actively. Talk about yourself, not your partner and his or her faults. If you can point a finger as you’re talking, you are likely being critical or contemptuous. Talk instead about yourself, your feelings, your desires, and your frustrations.

Creating change

Troubled couples are very speedy in their interactions. They can flash a sneer or roll their eyes in an instant. This is why true couples therapists are often called “Ninjas.”

To change destructive patterns, the Four Horsemen have to be recognized and stopped. At Couples Therapy Inc we teach couples how to do it.

Our science-based training assures you of the highest quality, best-trained clinicians to tackle your most angry fights.

Originally published August 5, 2013

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. K


Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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  1. Is there a good therapist in Thornhill Ontario close to Toronto. My husband and I are separated but live in the same house for three years. He covers his eyes when I talk to him and says I am the problem. I filed for divorce but he hid from service five times. He says it’s not money and he doesn’t want divorce but he refuses to go to counselling or speak to me.

  2. I suffer from PTSD because my older sister physically abused me as a child. It stopped as we got older but the abuse turned to mental and emotional and never stopped. My parents did nothing about it and wrote it off as sibling rivalry. Hence, I grew up in an “unsafe household”. My husband constantly and consistently criticises me which makes me want to run away and get as far away from him as I can. I can’t get him to understand how badly he triggers me. His philosophy is what happened in the past is in the past and I should just get over it. As far as he is concerned, his way is the right way so any other way must be wrong. I feel like I am talking to a brick wall who is so afraid of seeing another perspective for the fear of learning he might be “wrong”. I don’t want him to feel “wrong”. I just want him to see there are alternate solutions to problems. I need a kinder, gentler husband who takes my perspective into consideration. How do I get him to see things from my perspective without him feeling it might imply his perspective is wrong?

    1. You may not. Your husband may not be willing to accept your influence. This is true of 65% of men, according to Gottman. Kazz, if you are clearly telling him what triggers you, and he’s ignoring you, that’s psychological abuse. What he “believes” has no bearing. You are telling him your experience, and he’s ignoring you.

      You can’t “make him” accept influence. He has to see his own reasons for doing so. It sounds from your description that his rigidity is preventing him from doing so.

      If he won’t go to psychotherapy for couples help, go yourself. Your capacity to be firm when he criticizes can be learned, and how to protect yourself (or leave) if he insists on hurting you can also be motivating to him. Maybe not.

      The best suggestion, however, it to urge him to go into psychotherapy with you, so you both can be happier together. Good luck and get help.
      Dr. K

    2. I can’t believe that I didn’t write this myself. Only the players are different, but the game is the same. I hope it gives you some sort of comfort to know that there is at least one person on this earth that knows exactly how you feel.

  3. Dear Brian.
    Thank you for sharing your story. I am Dr. Rodriguez, one of the therapists at Couples Therapy Inc. I am glad that you are trying to apply the concepts of the Four Horseman into your daily living. It is difficult for me as an outsider to assess the sign in the toilet as a contempt or an angry expression, or a reminder. It all depends on the intentionality of the gesture.
    However, if it is hurtful for you, it is something that should be addressed. Try to be calm and have a conversation with your partner. Let her know how you feel when you see the reminder. Then try to listen (without defensiveness), her point of view. Each take turns to explain the underlying need or longing behind this issue. It is a need of order, love for the environment, need to feel supported..etc. Try to understand each other instead of convince each other into your own arguments. Then you can reach some kind of agreement on this. As Dr. Gottman states, your relationship is more important that to be right. Do not get trap in a power struggle thinking “I am not going to so, just because you are asking me” or “my argument is more important than yours” Successful couples, research shows, are gentle to each other and accept influence!
    Wishing you the best!
    Heide Rodríguez Ubiñas, Ph.D.
    Senior Couples Therapist

    Couples Therapy Inc.

    https://www.couplestherapyinc.com

    San Juan, Puerto Rico.

    Licensed Psychologist PR #3154

    Clinical Psychologist

    Trained in the Gottman Marital Model

    844-9-COUPLE

  4. So writing a note in permanent marker on the underside of the toilet seat to flush every time could be considered a version of escalation from criticism to contempt? For one it is a major issue, for the other it is breaking a habit from growing up in an environment (concept) of conserving water and strain on a private septic. Unfortunately it began as criticism of being gross, incompetent, and intentionality.

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