John Gottman, renowned relationship expert and researcher, discovered four communication styles, that when left unresolved can lead to a relationship breakdown and has 93 percent accuracy in predicting divorce. These four styles, also known as the four horsemen, are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
It is important to understand each type and be able to recognize when you are engaging in it. The good news is there are remedies for each of these styles. You can learn new ways of expressing yourself that will build up your relationship instead of tearing it down. It is not conflict itself that indicates a spoiled relationship.
Conflict is typically healthy within a relationship as it can be productive in getting your needs met by your partner.
It’s how you deal with conflict that can potentially be problematic. The four horsemen are counterproductive behaviors that negatively affect a relationship, and although all relationships participate in these behaviors at times, it is the persistent engagement in these behaviors that mark a difficult relationship in need of some TLC.
Check out this video on the four communication patterns that can cause problems in relationships.
Criticism is the first horseman because it is the first behavior that is typically used in couples in conflict. Criticism refers to attacking one’s character or personality, rather than the behavior itself. “You are so lazy” is an example of criticism. Instead, using I statements such as: “It frustrates me when you don’t help out around the house,” targets your partner’s problem behavior without the use of criticism.
The important thing is to learn the difference between expressing a complaint and criticizing:
- Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”
- Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish. You never think of others! You never think of me!”
If you find that you are your partner are critical of each other, don’t assume your relationship is doomed to fail. The problem with criticism is that, when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen to follow. It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and often causes the perpetrator and victim to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity, which eventually leads to contempt.
Take a look at this couple. One partner has a need always to be on time, even early, yet the other partner seems to have difficulty keeping up and being ready to go when their partner needs them to be. Here’s a form of contempt that the punctual partner might dish out:
The second horseman is contempt. You know you are contemptuous when you show blatant disrespect for your partner by doing things like sneering, rolling your eyes, or using “humor” to down your partner. Try to be aware of your behaviors and understand what it is that you are really upset about and target that rather than using passive-aggressive ways to tell your partner how you feel.
“Look, I learned how to tell time when I was five years old. When are you ever gonna learn?”
Or this couple, who have a recurring fight about sex:
“We haven’t had sex in months. What, are you too busy flirting with that guy at work? Why don’t you just marry him instead?”
Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner—which come to a head when the perpetrator attacks the accused from a position of relative superiority.
Most importantly, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. It must be eliminated.
The third horseman is defensiveness. Becoming defensive is an easy behavior to engage in when in conflict. The problem with defensiveness is that once you engage in it, you naturally tune out what your partner is trying to say to you and begin making excuses, blaming your partner, and not taking responsibility for your part in the conflict.
Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take their concerns seriously and that we won’t take responsibility for our mistakes:
- Question: “Did you call Susan and Mark to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”
- Defensive response: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact, you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”
This partner not only responds defensively, but they reverse blame in an attempt to make it the other partner’s fault. Instead, a non-defensive response can express acceptance of responsibility, admission of fault, and understanding of your partner’s perspective:
“Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. That’s my fault. Let me call them right now.”
Although it is perfectly understandable to defend yourself if you’re stressed out and feeling attacked, this approach will not have the desired effect. Defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if the critical spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner, and it won’t allow for healthy conflict management.
The last horseman is stonewalling, and couples who regularly engage in this behavior are more likely to break up or get divorced. Research shows that this is the most damaging behavior to engage in. Simply put, stonewalling is when you become non responsive. Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall can make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors.
It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a bad habit. And unfortunately, stonewalling isn’t easy to stop. It is a result of feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded, and when we stonewall, we may not even be in a physiological state where we can discuss things rationally.
If you feel like you’re stonewalling during a conflict, stop the discussion and ask your partner to take a break:
“Alright, I’m feeling too angry to keep talking about this. Can we please take a break and come back to it in a bit? It’ll be easier to work through this after I’ve calmed down.”
Then take 20 minutes to do something alone that soothes you—read a book or magazine, take a walk, go for a run, really, just do anything that helps to stop feeling overwhelmed—and then return to the conversation once you feel ready. Be sure not to continue to thinking about the conflict and instead focus on what you need to feel more calm and grounded.
Four Horsemen Remedies: Ways to Improve Your Communication
Being able to identify the Four Horsemen in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication and conflict patterns, you must replace them with healthy, productive ones.
Fortunately, each horseman has a proven remedy to help you counteract them.
The Remedy to Criticism: Gentle Start-Up
A complaint focuses on a specific behavior, but criticism attacks a person’s very character. The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame by using a soft or gentle start-up. Avoid saying “you,” which can indicate blame, and instead talk about your feelings using “I” statements and express what you need in a positive way.
To put it simply, think of these two things to formulate your soft start-up: What do I feel? What do I need?
Criticism: “You always talk about yourself. Why are you always so selfish?”
Antidote: “I’m feeling left out of our talk tonight and I need to vent. Can we please talk about my day?”
Notice that the antidote starts with “I feel,” leads into “I need,” and then respectfully asks to fulfill that need. There’s no blame or criticism, which prevents the discussion from escalating into an argument.
The Remedy to Contempt: Build a Culture of Appreciation and Respect
Contempt shows up in statements that come from a position of moral superiority. Some examples of contempt include sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. Contempt is destructive and defeating. It is the greatest predictor of divorce, and it must be avoided at all costs.
The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation and respect in your relationship, and there are a few ways to do that. One of the Gottman mottos is Small Things Often: if you regularly express appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner, you’ll create a positive perspective in your relationship that acts as a buffer for negative feelings. The more positive you feel, the less likely that you’ll feel or express contempt!
Another way that we explain this is our discovery of the 5:1 “magic ratio” of positive to negative interactions that a relationship must have to succeed. If you have five or more positive interactions for every one negative interaction, then you’re making regular deposits into your emotional bank account, which keeps your relationship in the green.
Contempt: “You forgot to load the dishwasher again? Ugh. You are so incredibly lazy.” (Rolls eyes.)
Antidote: “I understand that you’ve been busy lately, but could you please remember to load the dishwasher when I work late? I’d appreciate it.”
The antidote here works so well because it expresses understanding right off the bat. This partner shows how they know that the lack of cleanliness isn’t out of laziness or malice, and so they do not make a contemptuous statement about their partner or take any position of moral superiority.
Instead, this antidote is a respectful request, and it ends with a statement of appreciation.
The Remedy to Defensiveness: Take Responsibility
Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim hood in attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand.
Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying that the problem isn’t me, it’s you. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.
Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault that we’re going to be late. It’s your fault since you always get dressed at the last second.”
Antidote: “I don’t like being late, but you’re right. We don’t always have to leave so early. I can be a little more flexible.”
By taking responsibility for part of the conflict (trying to leave too early), even while asserting that they don’t like to be late, this partner prevents the conflict from escalating by admitting their role in the conflict. From here, this couple can work towards a compromise.
The Remedy to Stonewalling: Physiological Self-Soothing
Stonewalling is when someone completely withdraws from a conflict discussion and no longer responds to their partner. It usually happens when you’re feeling flooded or emotionally overwhelmed, so your reaction is to shut down, stop talking, and disengage. And when couples stonewall, they’re under a lot of emotional pressure, which increases heart rates, releases stress hormones into the bloodstream, and can even trigger a fight-or-flight response.
In one of our longitudinal research studies, we interrupted couples after fifteen minutes of an argument and told them we needed to adjust the equipment. We asked them not to talk about their issue, but just to read magazines for half an hour. When they started talking again, their heart rates were significantly lower and their interaction was more positive and productive.
What happened during that half hour? Each partner, without even knowing it, physiologically soothed themselves by reading and avoiding discussion. They calmed down, and once they felt calm, they were able to return to the discussion in a respectful and rational way.
Therefore, the antidote to stonewalling is to practice physiological self-soothing, and the first step of self-soothing is to stop the conflict discussion and call a timeout:
“Look, we’ve been through this over and over again. I’m tired of reminding you—”
“Honey, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m feeling overwhelmed and I need to take a break. Can you give me twenty minutes and then we can talk?”
If you don’t take a break, you’ll find yourself either stonewalling and bottling up your emotions, or you’ll end up exploding at your partner, or both, and neither will get you anywhere good.
So, when you take a break, it should last at least twenty minutes because it will take that long before your body physiologically calms down. It’s crucial that during this time you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore”) and innocent victimhood (“Why is he always picking on me?”). Spend your time doing something soothing and distracting, like listening to music, reading, or exercising. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as it helps you to calm down.
You’ve got the skills. Use them!
Now that you know what the Four Horsemen are and how to counteract them with their proven antidotes, you’ve got the essential tools to manage conflict in a healthy way. As soon as you see criticism or contempt galloping in, remember their antidotes. Be vigilant. The more you can keep the Four Horsemen at bay, the more likely you are to have a stable and happy relationship.
Here’s a handout that you can print out and refer to as you are becoming more aware of these communication patterns and their remedies.
Carlene Lehmann, M.A., LMFT, LCDC-Intern is a Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor-Intern at Relationships Matter Austin in Austin, Texas. Carlene works with individuals, couples, and families. She can help you improve the communication in your relationship whether your pattern is for discussions to escalate or you tend to withdraw. Often in a relationship it can be a combination of both patterns. To schedule your appointment with Carlene, you can reach her at (512) 994-0432 or request an appointment with her on the Relationships Matter Austin Scheduling Page.