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.

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.

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.

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 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