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  • Gottman’s Four Horsemen: Their Poison & Their Antidotes OR 4 Ways Your Relationship May Have Changed Over Time!

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    Ever sit there and wonder, “how did we get here?”, “how did I change?”, “how did my partner change?” If so; you are not alone!

    It’s incredibly common for relationships to evolve and change over time. Sometimes those changes can cause a rift in the relationship and I’m here to help you understand how that may have happened.

    In order to best understand how things may have changed, it’s really important to take a moment to slow down and discuss a few concepts that can be known to infiltrate relationships over time that could be the cause for these harmful changes that you are noticing within your relationship. 

    These concepts are specifically called, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse According to Gottman” and are as follows: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. 

    Now, no relationship is perfect, so these may be present even in healthy relationships to some degree at times, but by no means are they used as frequently as they are used in unhealthy or weakened relationships.

    So, let’s dive in and discuss the four horsemen to help you better understand how your relationship may have changed over time:

    1)  Criticism

    Criticism can be defined as an attack on someone’s character and/or personality. It’s an easy way to lose your audience, to start calling them names and describing them in a negative light. Sometimes we get so overwhelmed or it’s the ‘final straw’ and we lose our cool when we are doing these things. Regardless of why one engages in criticism, it’s important to know that it is not the route to go.

    Example: “You’re so lazy. Why didn’t you take the garbage out?” 


    How then do I comment in a productive way and still be heard? 

    The answer is to complain. Yes, you heard me: complain. 

    The important thing to do is complain about actions. The reason we complain is because in every complaint there is a longing that is usually unmet. When one complains instead of criticizing, it is easier to distill this down. When one criticizes their partner, the longing is often missed because of the negative communication approach.

    Effective complaining can sound like this: “The garbage cans were not brought to the street. This is something you committed to doing. I’m feeling irritated about this”.

    In an effective complaint you state the FACTS, and comment ONLY on ACTIONS, not someone’s character, nor someone’s opinions. You can also add how you are personally feeling about it if needed, but be sure to be gentle, yet direct and use “I statements”. The longing is for this task to be completed as it was the person’s responsibility they committed to. It is clear. Sometimes complaints will be followed by a request of action.

    For example: “The garbage cans were not brought to the street. This is something you committed to doing. I’m feeling irritated about this. When you get a chance this evening, can you please bring them out to the street”?

    I encourage you to replace any and all criticism with effective complaining!

    2)  Contempt

    Contempt can be defined as treating your partner as if they are not an equal; specifically, that you are better than them. Contempt can often show up as teasing your partner in a negative way by use of sarcasm. 

    This is known as the most dangerous of the horsemen because it involves the notion that the view you have of your partner is negative. Once we hold a negative or toxic view of our partner, we tend to contribute negativity to everything they do. This is termed: negative sentiment override, and commonly occurs in conjunction with contempt in relationships.

    For example, if your partner is sharing something they find very hurtful they experienced and you think that it is not that big of a deal, someone with contempt for their partner may say something to the effect of: “you’re soooo sensitive”, poking fun at their emotions instead of supporting them.


    To decrease contempt, one must make changes to rebuild the very damaged emotional connection that is clearly severed as evidenced by the mocking or invalidating responses that are occurring. The couple must make attempts to restructure the narrative they have for their partner. 

    According to Gottman, and backed by a lot of other literature, this rebuilding of the narrative of one’s partner takes time. To try to triage the relationship in the short-term, Gottman and many others encourage couples to state their feelings and present their needs in a positive way.

    For example, “I’m feeling very disconnected. Can we make some quality time for each other”? It’s important to be direct, clear, and state the longing one has. This invites and encourages enhancement of the relationship as well as growth of the person as individuals since it can take practice to approach a partner with care and concern after having contempt present for so long.

    Again, for the long-term solution couples will need therapy to change their toxic narratives and replace them with positive or neutral ones over time. A few main goals in the ‘contempt’ construction period are for you to give your partner the benefit of the doubt, to support rather than invalidate or poke fun at your partner, respect your partner, and to hold space for differences between you both, among many things!

    3.) Defensiveness

    It’s often challenging to hear things that a partner says that we do not agree with. Typically, we tend to ‘bite back’ or ‘defend’ ourselves in these moments. Though we can understand why this happens, the impact is very negative on all involved.

    Defensiveness can be defined as a counterattack to deflect a perceived attack from someone else. The biggest issue here is that this automatically takes a concern your partner may be presenting to you, invalidates their experience, and is used to reflect blame back towards the partner. This can be a tricky one as sometimes defensiveness can come so naturally like a reflex.


    Partner 1: “Hey! Did you take out the trash yet?”

    Partner 2: “Why, are you expecting me to not do it? Do you think I’m lazy?”


    Take time before responding. It will behoove you to take a minute to filter what you want to say before blurting it out. Also, please take your partner at face value for what they are saying. What is their intention? Perhaps it is not landing on you as intended which can mean this is a part you play or they may not be effectively communicating in a way you understand to get their point across successfully.

    Another approach you can use is the idea that we can remain curious instead of defensive. Essentially, picture yourself as a detective and ask your partner to elaborate. Instead of becoming angry, try to identify clues from what they say as to why they hold beliefs about you that you don’t align with. 

    Clarify, clarify clarify! Remember that when you’re a detective you’re open to new information coming in to help make sense of the data (i.e., the claims your partner is making about you, views they have on you, etc.).

    Please recall that just because it is said, that does not make it the truth or fact, it just means that this is what you or your partner are thinking, feeling, and/or experiencing. 

    A final way to look at this is, usually, there is some grain of truth to whatever your partner is claiming and they are likely not out to get you. Try to take a bird’s eye view of the statement. If all else fails take a global approach and ask them to help you understand where they are coming from instead of becoming defensive.

    4.) Stonewalling

    Stonewalling can be defined as purposeful ignoring. Picture this, you walk into a room and ask your spouse a question. However, they continue to watch what is on TV. Perhaps they didn’t hear you, so you ask again. Still no response. You walk in front of them and say it again, they look 1000 miles right through you. This is an example of stonewalling.

    Understand that stonewalling is different than flooding in that flooding is when a person becomes physiologically unable to respond. This can be compared to the ‘deer in headlights’ experience where one can become emotionally paralyzed for various reasons. While flooding is a biological reaction where neurotransmitters are going haywire, adrenaline is coursing through one’s veins, and heart-rate and respiratory functions are (typically) increased, stonewalling is a controllable experience that is usually done out of spite, anger, or indifference.


    Instead of ignoring your partner, please set a boundary and say something to the effect of, “I’m not in a headspace to talk with you right now”. It’s better to set limits, than to ignore your partner as this can easily be seen as engaging in game-playing and/or disrespectful. 

    Open-communication, self-soothing when angry at your partner while taking a break, and just not engaging in stonewalling in itself is the fix here.

    It’s okay to have limits, but it’s your responsibility to communicate them to your partner. It does not matter how long you have been with your partner, they should never be expected to mind-read and know what your thoughts, needs, and wants are, though Hollywood has sure made this desire difficult to not have. 

    I always quote from a colleague, “my crystal ball broke last week” in response to any expectations that I “should have known something” if it was not communicated. 

    Often, we think of the ‘golden couples’ as not having to communicate much; however, it truly is the opposite. Always over-communicate rather than under-communicate, not communicate, or ignore issues. Think about this like dust bunnies. If you don’t vacuum under your couch, they will multiply and things will be very dirty. The more you ignore the dust bunnies in your relationship the more issues you will have that will multiply.


    I hope these four horseman examples help to provide answers for why you may feel like your relationship has changed over the years and provide some clarity as far as how to resolve the obstacles you may currently be faced with.

    Remember, even healthy relationships go through similar experiences and how you both decide to grow together from your differences can truly make a huge difference!

    If you find yourself struggling to be happy and cannot quite get back on track to where things once were within your relationship, Solid Foundations Therapy is here to help! Learn more at solidfoundationstherapy.com or give us a call at 630-633-8532 today!