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Four Communication Styles Couples Should Avoid - The 4 Horsemen




Dr. John Gottman is considered one of the fathers of couples therapy. He was one of the first psychologists to do research on marital stability and divorce prediction. He wanted to see if there were patterns of behavior or sequences of interactions that can discriminate between a happy couple and an unhappy one.


Dr. Gottman used a scientific and data-driven approach to be able to predict whether a couple would divorce with an average of over 90% accuracy. Using a variety of devices and rating scales, the Gottman Lab discovered certain communication styles that led to poor marriage predictions. Those poor communication styles became what he called the Four Horsemen.


Four Horsemen by Dr. John Gottman:


First Horseman: Criticism: Criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter of the two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack. Criticism is an attack on your partner at the core of their character. In effect, you are dismantling their whole being when you criticize. Whereas a complaint is about a specific issue.


If you and your partner have a pattern of criticizing, don’t assume your relationship is doomed to fail. The problem with criticism is that when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen.


Second Horseman: Contempt: This is a mean way of communicating—Dr. Gottman explains that contempt is when we treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names, and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The recipient of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless. It is as if you are assuming a role of superiority over your partner. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce.

Third Horseman: Defensiveness: This is a common response to criticism. When we feel accused, it is natural to play innocent so our partner can back off. However, unfortunately, this technique does not usually work. We are in essence telling our partners that we do not take their concerns seriously and we are not being responsible for our actions. In many cases, partners who act with defensiveness also reverse the blame to make the other partner be at fault. A non-defensive response can express acceptance of responsibility, admission of fault, and understanding of your partner’s perspective. Often defensiveness will escalate conflict instead of backing your partner off.

Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling: According to Dr. Gottman, Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding to their partner. Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall can make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors. When this occurs partners may find themselves in a state where they can not discuss things rationally.

The first step to effectively manage conflict is being able to identify The Four Horsemen in your conflict. It is then important to replace them with healthy communication skills. The Gottesman Institute explains that conflict is a natural part of a couple's relationship. Thankfully, conflict is not a predictor of healthy or unhealthy relationships, but rather it is how we manage the conflict that matters.

For every Horseman there is an Antidote:


Criticism - Talk about your feelings using “I” statements and express a positive need.

Contempt - Build a culture of appreciation. Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and find gratitude for positive actions.

Defensiveness - Take responsibility, accept your partner's perspective, and offer an apology when you have done something wrong.

Stonewalling - physiological self-soothing- Take a break and do something relaxing and distracting, then come back to your partner when you are ready to talk.


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