The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

By: Katie Sanders, LMFT, LPC


February and Valentine's day bring thoughts of relationships whether we have a partner or not. Dr. John Gottman was researching relationships long before his long term marriage to Dr. Julie Gottman. All relationships have their highs and lows. Dr. Gottman’s research is focused on stability in relationships. Based on his research of studying couples interactions, within minutes, Dr Gottman has been able to predict with a 90-94% accuracy on how a couple will fair in their relationship. These studies are focused on conflict resolution, communication patterns, and friendship. Gottman developed The Four Horsemento show where couples struggle in their relationship. The goal is to have knowledge of relationship patterns, increase awareness, and replace negative behaviors. 


Let’s identify and breakdown The Four Horsemen, their Antidotes, and recognize patterns to create healthy change...


Understanding negative communication and The Four Horsemen:


Horsemen #1: Criticism-Implying there is something wrong with your partner; blaming.the use of “you” statements when addressing others in a conversation.  Ex: “You always….” or “You never…” 

Horsemen #2: Defensiveness-This can escalate the conflict and be reverse blaming. This horsemen is about self-protection, can use a tone when defending yourself in the situation. Examples are creating excuses for your actions, redirecting the conversation, having underlying resentment. “You do that as well…”

Horsemen #3: Contempt- Shows disrespect through attack of character. Sarcasm, name calling, eye rolling. Conveying high levels of unhappiness with another. The most severe of the horsemen.

Horsemen #4: Stonewalling- This type of withdrawal and isolation coming from overwhelmed feelings. This can lead to tuning out, no responding, no feedback, leaving the room, or no eye contact.  During high levels of overwhelm habits of withdrawal are created as an avoidance of conflict. 


How to manage The Four Horsemen and their Antidotes:


Together with support, intentionality, and awareness The Four Horsemencan be replaced. 


Antidote #1: Criticism-Start a conversation with “I” statements. It is important to slow down the conflict and understand the other person's point of view.  “I feel...describe situation...I need…” or start out as “We…” coming together on the struggle are some examples. 

Antidote #2: Defensiveness-Take ownership for your part, and recognize your feelings. This not about pointing out another's faults. Understanding one way isn’t the only way, it can be about perspective. Using “I” statements or offering an apology are great examples.

Antidote #3: Contempt- Remembering another’s positive qualities, acknowledging them, and building positive moments. Using “I” statements, a tone seeking to understand rather than to judge. A willingness to accept a person and demonstrating with a hug, a positive word, helping out; this is part of understanding another and practicing ways that meet their needs.

Antidote #4: Stonewalling-  Openness, connection, willingness to engage, and to share thoughts and feelings. A couple of examples are self-soothing, take a break do something else to calm down and then come back within 24 hours for continued dialogue and resolution. 


Now please take a moment to think about your own relationships…with your partners, your children, your peers, your clients.

Do you see yourself in the any of the horsemen? When do you see this occur? 

What are your patterns? Are you willing to be intentional, commit to and practice these antidotes with your relationships today?


A good resource to read and study is “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”, by Dr. John Gottman. Additionally, you can call today to schedule an appointment or consultation with Katie Sanders, LMFT, LPC, Gottman trained, passionate about creating healthy change in relationships.


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