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The Four Horsemen of Relationship Apocalypse: John Gottman's Insights and Their Antidotes

Updated: Feb 26

The Four Horsemen of Relationship Apocalypse: John Gottman's Insights and Their Antidotes

Justine Bond, LAMFT

Dr. John Gottman, relationship researcher and expert, studied and identified four destructive communication patterns that most often predict breakups and divorce in couples, known as "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." He also researched and identified their four antidotes to promote repair and revitalization in all relationships. We’ll dive into all four of these behaviors and their antidotes to better understand our own role in these patterns and foster a deeper connection in our relationship:

#1 : Criticism

When a partner uses a remark that attacks the character of their partner. This usually begins with “you” instead of “I”, pointing out the flaws of them instead of turning toward and reflecting or communicating on how we feel. Gottman also refers to criticism as a harsh start up:

  • “You never do the dishes, you’re so lazy!”

  • “You always choose work over me, you don't even care about me”

Antidote: Gentle start up

Communicating what you’re feeling, and then expressing what you need.

  • “I feel overwhelmed by the housework, and I need more support in these tasks.”

  • “I feel alone when you work these hours, and I need more quality time with you.”

#2 : Contempt

When a partner talks down to the other partner, from a place of dominance or superiority, with the intent to hurt them.

  • Examples include sarcasm, name calling, and body language such as eye rolling, or scoffing.

Antidote: Building appreciation and love

Reminding yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and communicating gratitude for them, while continuing to use the “gentle start up” technique.

#3 : Defensiveness

When you are trying to protect yourself with blame or victimization. Accountability is tough but sometimes needed.

  • Partner 1: “Why didn’t you take out the trash? There’s garbage falling out of it now.”

  • Partner 2: “Why couldn't you take it out? I was working all day and driving the kids around and I’m just trying to relax!”

Antidote: Take responsibility

We don’t have to agree, but we must attempt to understand. Accepting wrongdoing and offering apology!

  • Partner’s 2 response: I have been busy with work and it totally slipped my mind- I should have communicated I need help or that I would do it as soon as I got home.

#4 : Stonewalling

When partners fear the conflict will get worse or they are trying to ultimately avoid prolonging the fight, they often withdraw and retreat and there is no resolution.

  • Partner 1: “Why can’t you make it home from work on time ever? Now we all have to wait for you to have dinner.”

  • Partner 2: “Okay- it’s just how it is, I don’t know what to tell you. (Or doesn't say anything and becomes quite/withdrawn and eats dinner from the office)”

Antidote: Self soothing

Finding an activity or therapeutic exercise to engage in before entering into a conversation with your partner allows for emotional regulation and distress tolerance when we feel activated and triggered. The reason why we want to avoid and shut down is most likely due to burnout, so we must take care of ourselves first before we can take care of the relationship.

Dr. John Gottman's Four Horsemen unveil destructive communication patterns that can damage relationships. By being accountable and open to our roles in these behaviors, we can prevent their detrimental effects and foster healthier connections. By practicing their antidotes, we can absolutely create a solid foundation for open communication, understanding, and lasting love. Relationships require work, and by employing these antidotes, you can navigate challenges and strengthen the bond with your partner, promoting a more fulfilling and harmonious partnership!

Carrere, S., and Gottman, J.M., (1999). Predicting Divorce among Newlyweds from the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion. Family Process, Vol. 38(3), 293-301

Interested in learning more about how Marriage and Family Therapy can help you and your family? Schedule a free 15 min consult to learn more! With offices in Gilbert & Phoenix Arizona, our therapists are ready to help you achieve your limitless potential.

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