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Shift Relationship Communication by Eliminating the 4 Horseman

By Dr. Katie Stirling

What are the 4 Horseman?
Dr John Gottman is known for being able to predict whether or not a couple will divorce with over 90% accuracy. One of the ways he does this is by assessing the presence of the 4 horseman in couple relationships. In fact, one of the most important techniques in his couples counselling approach - Gottman method couples therapy, is working to eliminate the four horseman. So, what are these four horseman?

The four horseman are communication traps that we all fall into. Basically the 4 horseman are ways of communicating that:
1. Get in the way of your partner being able to hear your perspective and 2. Get in the way of your needs being met in the relationship

Working to eliminate the 4 horseman, an important element of Gottman Method Couples Therapy, is one of the most important ways to start changing the way you communicate with your partner.

The 4 horseman are:
1. Criticism
2. Defensiveness
3. Contempt
4. Stonewalling

So what can we do about the 4 horseman?

Based on decades of research with thousands of couples, couples therapists now know how to break these patterns of communication. Dr John Gottman, a pioneer in couples counselling research has developed tried and tested antidotes for each of the 4 horseman. An antidote is basically what we want to do instead of the horseman. For example when raising a complaint we want to use a gentle start up to communicate, so we can eliminate any criticism.



Criticism is when we attack our partner’s character. For example when we criticise we might say something like: “You don’t care about me. You’re never affectionate.” Criticism is also when we say “you always” or “you never”. For example “you never listen to me”.


The antidote to criticism = 'Gentle Start Up Gentle Start Up'
I Feel (identify the feeling) + About (describe the situation or behaviour) + I need (describe the positive need)

The antidote to criticism or what we want to do instead of criticising is use a gentle start up to raise a complaint. A complaint is when we focus on a specific behaviour, to complain without blame. For example, when using a gentle start up the complaint would be: “I feel lonely, when we are not connecting physically. It would be great if once a day you could give me a random hug.”



Contempt is when we express superiority, it’s kind of like saying that we’re better than our partner in some way. We might look down on our partner. We are showing contempt when we do things like eyerolling, sarcasm, cynism, name-calling, and hostile humour.

The antidote to contempt  =
1.Building a Culture of Appreciation
2. Gentle Start Up

There are 2 antidotes to contempt. The first one is building a culture of appreciation –sharing the things we appreciate with our partner, saying please and thank you, and filling the emotional bank account. The second is the same antidote as criticism- using a gentle start up- changing the way we communicate to express our feelings and needs.



Defensiveness is a way of blaming our partner. In couples counselling we often see defensiveness follow criticism. There are 2 types of defensiveness. Firstly, counter attack where we shift blame back on to our partner. And secondly, innocent victim stance, for example saying things like “Nothing I do is right, what’s the point in trying”.

The antidote to defensiveness = 'Taking Responsibility' Defensiveness = “You’re always late. You can’t be annoyed with me for being late this one time.” Taking Responsibility = “I’m sorry I was late tonight. I understand why you would feel upset, this dinner is important and you’ve worked hard to organise this time together.” The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility. When we are able to validate our partner’s perspective and take responsibility, our partner feels heard and understood. Once we have taken responsibility, our partner will be more able to hear our perspective, so we can also feel heard and understood



Stonewalling is when the listener withdraws from communication before the situation can be resolved. When someone is stonewalling they may not show much emotion and they may not be giving their partner the body language, facial or verbal cues they need. Stonewalling usually happens when we are feeling flooded or emotionally overwhelmed, and our response is to disengage, shut down, or stop talking.

The antidote to stonewalling = Physiological self-soothing strategies e.g. Take a break

The antidote to stonewalling is using self-soothing strategies, usually taking a break and then coming back to the discussion. If either partner is in a state of physiological arousal we want to take a break for at least 20 minutes, not think about the argument, use self- soothing strategies and come back to the discussion. Find out more about taking a break in this blog.


Shift Communication to Feel Heard and Understood:
Now that we know the four horseman and their antidotes we can start to shift the patterns of communication in our relationship. Changing patterns of communication can be difficult. We can get caught in the trap of highlighting the things our partner needs to change rather than focussing on what we can do to shift patterns of communication. If you are finding it difficult to shift out of the cycle of blame you may want to see a couples therapist or find out more about our online relationship programs.

It is important that we focus on spotting our own horseman and start to change the way that we communicate in the relationship. When we can eliminate the 4 horseman we will both feel heard and understood in the relationship, not only impacting our communication but also connection in our relationship.