The Four Horsemen: Recognizing Negative Communication Patterns

The “four horsemen” is a term coined by Drs. John and Julie Gottman in their decades of research on couples and relationships. These four behaviours, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, can be predictors of relationship distress and, ultimately, failure.

Criticism is the act of attacking one’s character or personality instead of addressing a specific behaviour. For example, instead of saying, “I get really upset when I see you leaving your clothes on the floor after I just clean the room”, one might say, “you’re so lazy and disorganized”. 

Contempt is the next level of criticism, characterized by a sense of superiority and disdain for one’s partner. This can manifest in sarcasm, eye-rolling, name-calling, and other forms of verbal and nonverbal disrespect. In the case of clothes on the floor, the contemptuous partner might say, “you are so disgusting”. 

Defensiveness can be present in one’s communication pattern but can also be a response to criticism or contempt. It involves denying responsibility and counterattacking. When one raises a concern in the relationship, the defensive partner would deny responsibility by saying, “I never did that”. They might also deny it by saying “that never happened”. They also might deny responsibility by minimizing what they did “my voice was not that loud” or “I was not yelling at you!”.

 It can take the form of “yes, but” statements or shifting blame to one’s partner. In the face of raising a concern, the defensive partner might shift the blame by saying “but you do that yourself”. They might also say “look who is talking” or “you are just too sensitive”. Moreover, they might attack the relationship when they are defensive, “this is just not working,” or “maybe we should just break up”. They sometimes might attack themselves by being self-deprecating and saying, “you are never gonna be happy with me” or “I can never make you happy”. All these forms of defensiveness shift the conversation to something completely different and hinder the couples from resolving the original problem. 

Stonewalling is the act of withdrawing emotionally from a conversation or interaction. It can manifest as silence, shutting down, or physically removing oneself from the situation. 

It’s important to note that no relationship is immune to these behaviours. It is normal for couples to fall into these patterns at times. However, all four of these behaviours are toxic to a relationship. They can lead to a cycle of increasing negativity and disconnection and result in a deep sense of loneliness. Therefore, it’s crucial to address them as soon as possible and to work on creating a culture of appreciation, mutual respect and empathy within the relationship. 

I wish you all the best. 

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