Gottman's Four Horsemen: Signs, Pitfalls and Prevention in Romantic Relationships

The Gottman Method is a form of relationship therapy that was created by Doctors John and Julie Gottman, a couple focused on relationship therapy and wellness. The Gottman Method is a therapeutic approach to relationship therapy that focuses on three aspects of romantic relationships: friendship, conflict management, and creating shared meaning.

The methodology follows the Sound House Theory that identifies the nine building blocks of a happy relationship. The nine components are building love maps, sharing fondness and admiration, turning towards instead of away, having a positive perspective, managing conflict, making dreams come true, creating a shared meaning, trust and commitment.

Therapists that use the Gottman Method focus on ways to improve communication and interpersonal dynamics in couples so that the nine components for happy relationships can be achieved.

In addition to identifying building blocks of happy, healthy, relationships, the Gottman Method also identifies the Four Horsemen that can ruin any relationship. Based on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Gottman’s Four Horsemen describe unhealthy communication styles that can lead to the end of your relationship. Gottman’s Four Horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

Criticism is the first horsemen. It is important to distinguish criticism, which attacks a person’s character or things central to their identity and complaints, which are specific and related to certain actions or lack thereof. After criticism comes, contempt which is a more severe form of criticism. Contempt goes farther than just negatively commenting on something and is more of an attack. Contempt is cruel at its core and impossible to argue with. Following contempt is defensiveness. Defensiveness is often a response to criticism and contempt. When someone is defensive, they refuse to take responsibility for the situation and instead, blame everything on their partner. This can be easy to do when the trust and respect in the relationship is eroded due to frequent criticism and contempt. The fourth and final horsemen is stonewalling. Like defensiveness, stonewalling is a response to criticism and contempt. When a partner feels like they are being attacked or as if they have no sway in the conversation or argument, they may completely withdraw and resort to stonewalling.

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While all of these are things that have the potential to end a relationship, they aren’t necessarily the nail in the coffin. If you and your partner are able to identify these unhealthy communication patterns and change your communication style, then you can prevent the four horsemen from causing the apocalypse of your relationship.

Here are a few signs that you or your partner are using unhealthy communication, and tips on how to prevent the horsemen from ruining your relationship:

Criticism

Signs of criticism include: negative comments about your partner’s character. This can mean saying things like “you’re selfish” or “you are lazy and never help me”. Criticism often arises when you are upset with your partner, but rather than articulate what behavior upset you or how it made you feel, you go for a personal attack. Instead of criticizing your partner, it is helpful to focus on using “I” statements. Using “I” statements makes the complaint less about your partner and more about you and your needs. This can help change the tone of a conversation and avoid blaming a partner, which is not productive.

Remember that it is totally natural to have complaints about your partner! No one is perfect and there will be times when you need a partner to change their behavior. It is important to address the situation with kindness and respect to avoid things from becoming contemptuous in the relationship.

Contempt

Contempt is a more harsh version of criticism. If you are using sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye rolling, mockery or hostile humor as ways to communicate with your partner, these are signs of contempt. Contempt is the greatest predictor of relationship failure, which means that if you notice these behaviors in your relationship, it is time to make some serious changes.

To avoid contempt in a relationship, it’s important to establish mutual respect for one another and create an atmosphere of appreciation. This is often easier said than done, but it is important to actively work towards cultivating mutual respect so that you and your partner are not put into positions in which you feel as if you can name-call or use hostile humor.

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Defensiveness

Defensiveness often looks like playing the victim in different situations. Defensiveness can often be a backhanded way to blame your partner because you are not willing to take responsibility for the role that you played in the conflict/argument/etc.

A way to avoid defensiveness is to accept responsibilities for your actions. It’s not necessary to throw yourself under the bus, or take responsibility for the entire situation. But it is important to recognize that it takes two to tango and that more likely than not, your actions had at least a minor role in the situation. Accepting responsibility (rather than pushing blame onto a partner) can also inspire them to see how their actions played into the situationship. This can encourage them to take responsibility as well, which can encourage more healthy conflict resolution.

Stonewalling

If a partner is stonewalling they may completely withdraw from conflict instead of fighting for themselves or articulating what the problem is. Stonewalling is often what results if the three other horsemen have been present in the relationship for a significant amount of time.

If you find that you or your partner are stonewalling during a conflict, it’s important to take some time away from the conflict in order to cool off and collect your feelings. A good rule of thumb is to take twenty minutes away from the conflict so that you can get into a more neutral headspace, then come back to the conflict and hash things out. If you take space from the conflict, it’s super important to return to the conflict so that things become resolved.

Whether it’s twenty minutes, an hour or two or a day, make sure that you and your partner sit back down and address the things that caused the stonewalling in the first place.

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