The Four Horsemen: Breaking the Pattern

If you want to improve your relationships, you may have heard of John Gottman. As a renowned relationship expert, coach and founder of the Gottman Institute, he has dedicated his career to studying what makes relationships thrive or fail.

We’ll look into John Gottman’s groundbreaking research on healthy relationships and his developed strategies to foster strong connections. We’ll explore his research on the “fourth horseman” that can destroy any partnership and how the Gottman Method helps couples build stronger relationships through positive interactions.

What Are the Four Horsemen of Gottman?

The Four Horsemen of Gottman are four negative communication styles that can predict the success or failure of a relationship. Psychologist John Gottman developed these four behaviours: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

  1. Criticism
  2. Contempt
  3. Defensiveness
  4. Stonewalling

The Four Horsemen of Gottman is a set of destructive behaviours that can erode relationships and lead to divorce. Criticism is the first horseman, which involves attacking someone’s character or personality rather than addressing an issue directly.

The First Horseman: Criticism

It often comes from feeling hurt or frustrated and can be expressed through blaming words such as “you’re selfish” or “you are lazy and never help me.” Unfortunately, this type of criticism fails to address the problem and damages trust and respect in a relationship.

Rather than criticizing your partner, focusing on using “I” statements when discussing issues with them is helpful. Doing this makes it less about your partner and more about how their actions have made you feel; this helps keep conversations productive while avoiding blame-game scenarios that don’t lead anywhere positive.

The most common form of criticism is “You always…” statements, which blame your partner for their actions without taking responsibility for themselves.

For example, “you always leave dishes in the sink” implies that it is solely your partner’s fault when things don’t get done around the house. This form of criticism assigns blame without allowing for dialogue, making it hard to find a solution.

Another way to recognize criticism is by paying attention to how you phrase things when communicating with your partner.

For example, phrases like “I feel frustrated/angry/upset because…” will help keep conversations focused on your feelings instead of blaming them directly for something they did wrong.

Additionally, using language such as “I think…” instead of “you should…” allows each person to express their opinion without judging another – creating an environment where both partners feel heard and respected.

The Second Horseman: Contempt

Contempt is a form of disrespect in relationships that manifests as one partner talking down to the other from a place of superiority or feeling like they know better. It’s often seen when someone says something like “I am better than you” or speaks with sarcasm or condescension towards their partner.

According to John Gottman’s research on marital stability predicts divorce and longevity, contempt was the most significant predictor for divorce and separation out of all four horsemen (the others being criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling).

Contempt can have severe consequences on relationships; it erodes trust between partners and can lead to feelings such as resentment or insecurity which are challenging to come back from without outside help.

It can also lead couples into cycles where both parties feel stuck in a power struggle that doesn’t resolve quickly due to the lack of respect in negative communication patterns between them.

The Antidote To Contempt:


Love is the antidote for contempt – speaking lovingly about your partner will switch things around quickly. Building an atmosphere of appreciation rather than comparison will show you how unique your partner’s character is. Moreover, what Dr. Gottman calls ‘gentle start-ups’ when bringing up conflict – expressing what you feel instead of accusingly pointing fingers at each other – will help keep conversations manageable, even if they get heated.

The Third Horseman: Defensiveness

Defensiveness occurs when one partner feels attacked. It’s a form of protection that prevents further damage or hurt. When one partner feels attacked, criticized or judged, our instinct is to protect ourselves by deflecting blame onto the other person.

We may become argumentative, hostile, or even shut down completely to avoid feeling vulnerable. But unfortunately, this only escalates the situation and makes it more difficult for both parties to find a resolution.

How Does Defensiveness Affect Relationships?

It often leads to more arguments and creates an environment where neither party feels heard or understood. This can cause resentment and frustration on both sides, fueling the fire of defensiveness even more.

When one partner constantly defends themselves against criticism from their partner, it can make them feel like they are not being valued for who they are, ultimately leading to loneliness and disconnection within the relationship.

All these behaviours indicate fear; however, they do not help progress toward finding a resolution between two individuals who care about each other.

What Can You Do To Overcome Defensiveness?

The best way to overcome defensiveness in your relationship is by learning to take responsibility for your actions without blaming your partner for anything that has gone wrong in the past or present situation.

This means actively listening without interrupting when your partner speaks and trying hard not to judge them but instead empathize with their feelings and validate what they’re saying, no matter how difficult it might be.

The Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling

Stonewalling is a passive-aggressive way of dealing with conflict in relationships. It’s a form of avoidance, usually when one partner feels emotionally overwhelmed by the other’s criticism or contempt. So the stonewaller shuts down emotionally, withdraws from the interaction, and stops responding to the other partner’s complaint.

Why Do Couples Stonewall?

Couples may stonewall because they feel too emotional or overwhelmed to communicate effectively. They might also do it out of fear that no matter what they say, their partner won’t consider them. Other times, people stonewall to avoid conflict and hope the issue will disappear.

How Can We Avoid Stonewalling?

The best way to avoid stonewalling is through psychological self-soothing techniques. Consider taking a 20-minute break to engage in a calming activity by yourself. You could read a book or an article, stroll around the neighbourhood, go for a jog, or do any other activity that helps you regain a sense of calm.

Once you feel more composed, you can return to the conversation with a refreshed mindset and a greater readiness to engage productively.

How to Break the Pattern of the Four Horsemen

1. Accept that your sentiments are legitimate and know how they could sway the discussion. Take ownership of your feelings without blaming or accusing your partner.

2. Practice understanding the perspective of others and responding with kindness instead of being judgmental or dismissive.

3. Communicate Openly: Speak openly about your feelings and thoughts without attacking or shutting down. Aim to discuss a two-way dialogue rather than a one-sided argument so both parties can effectively express their thoughts and feelings without judgment or blame.

4. Find Solutions Together: Rather than simply pointing out each other’s flaws, try to find solutions together as a team that benefit both parties involved in the conflict resolution process.

5. Set Boundaries: It’s important to establish boundaries when it comes to communication during arguments; this includes avoiding name-calling, personal attacks, sarcasm etc., which can only lead to further hostility between partners.

6. Respect Each Other’s Opinions: Even if you disagree with each other’s point. This shows them that their voice matters too, which helps create an environment of mutual respect within the relationship.

7. Take Time Outs When Necessary: If things start getting heated, take some time away from each other until both parties are calm enough to discuss issues constructively again; remember, not everything needs to be solved right away, so give yourselves space when needed.

Going to couples therapy or counselling is often seen as a last resort, something you only do when your relationship is on the brink of collapse. But what if couples made therapeutic interventions a regular part of their relationship maintenance?


By taking proactive steps to recognize and address the four horsemen of Gottman – criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling – individuals and couples can build stronger, more resilient relationships in times of difficulty.

Take control of your mental health today. Get the help you need from Well Beings Counselling, where our experienced team can provide tailored solutions to address your unique needs and challenges.

Picture of Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

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