What are the Four Horsemen?

John and Judy Gottman are researchers who studied many couples and their communication styles and identified four common and problematic communication errors known as the Four Horsemen. The Four Horsemen are problematic communication errors that might come up in fights or arguments with your partner. The first is criticism. This when we attack our partner’s character by way of statements such as, “You’re always so selfish!” The second is contempt. This is known as possibly the worst communication error. This is when you mock your partner with insults, eye rolls, or sarcasm. The third horseman is defensiveness. This happens when we observe our partner’s statement as an attack (typically in response to a criticism), so the goal is to defend ourselves. This might look like blaming your partner or playing the victim. Finally, the fourth horsemen is stonewalling. Stonewalling is typically in response to contempt, and is when one partner shuts down and stops talking. The biggest problem with Four Horsemen is that most of the time couples don’t even realize they are committing them.

How do the Four Horsemen affect my relationship?

The Four Horsemen can have detrimental effects on each partner’s mental health and the relationship as a whole. Things like criticism or contempt can impact the receiving person’s self esteem, stress level, anxiety, and depression. The Gottmans have found that relationships which endorse these communication errors have a 90% chance of breaking up if they do not correct them ahead of time. Further, research has found that viral infections (such as colds and flus) are more prevalent in couples which both partners endorse contempt. This is because of the weakened immune systems that are caused by heightened stress.

What are the antidotes for the Four Horsemen?

The first step to take in correcting the Four Horsemen is to become aware that they are being committed. The antidote to criticism is to be specific and use “I” statements to convey your feelings to your partner.  For example, “I feel frustrated when I come home and the house is messy.” The antidote for contempt is to treat one another with respect and create a relationship of fondness and admiration. The antidote for defensiveness is taking responsibility for actions. You can try to say something like, “You’re right. I didn’t have enough time to clean. I’m sorry, and I’ll do it now.” The antidote for stonewalling is to take a break when you’re feeling like you might shut down. This might look like telling your partner, “I am feeling a bit emotionally flooded right now. Can we talk about this in an hour?”

You can read more about the Four Horsemen at Gottmans’ website: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/

This page is part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.


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