The Four Horsemen That Will Destroy a Relationship & How to Defeat Them

Our very own Angela Michnowicz, LMHC has completed Principles of Effective Couples Therapy trainings from the highly respected Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman. Specialty trainings like these increase expertise in working with couples and improving communication within relationships. Ms. Michnowicz has graciously provided a series of blogs based on her trainings, to provide education to clients who may be interested in working on their relationship. Below is the first in the Relationship Series.


Many people find themselves feeling disconnected, betrayed, confused, and discouraged in their relationship. Those who seek therapy are often burnt out and feel that they have done everything that they can do to save their relationship. Thankfully there is a researched backed formula to increase connection, build trust and avoid betrayal. Dr.’s John and Julie Gottman have conducted research around the “Four Horsemen”, they can predict a disaster relationship with 90 percent accuracy. The destructive nature of these communication styles earned them the name Four Horsemen in reference to Christian religion: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. However, you don’t need to be religious to benefit from breaking negative patterns and establishing fundamental building blocks for a healthy relationship.


During 50 years of research with thousands of couples, Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute designed “love labs” and observed how couples interacted and approached conflict. The Gottman’s separated couples into two groups; Masters and Disasters. The Gottman’s noticed that Disaster Couples who started their conflict conversation with criticism and elicited defensiveness in their partner ended up divorcing compared to Master Couples who used gentle start-ups or began their conversation expressing their feelings and needs.



The Four Horsemen and How to Defeat Them


1) Criticism

Starting conversations harshly or using always or never statements to attack our partner’s character. An example of criticism may look like “You never come home on time, you are so selfish”. 


Defeat Criticism by offering a complaint that identifies an underlying need. For example, “I am feeling as though I am not prioritized in our marriage”.


2) Defensiveness 

Being defensive may look blunt or subtle. Defensiveness could look like meeting a complaint with another complaint. For example, a couple may have made a commitment to spend time with each other after work. One partner could be too exhausted and respond aggressively to the other’s plea for attention. “I’m too tired. I work all day to make money so you can order more things off Amazon”


Defeat Defensiveness by accepting responsibility for our behaviors when a loved one expresses themselves. At the very least, accept responsibility for not recognizing your partner’s needs sooner.


3) Contempt 

A partner speaks with disrespect by calling names, mocking or behaving as if they are superior. This horseman is the most dangerous, biggest predictor of divorce. For example, “Oh you are tired? Cry me a river, suck it up already”.


Defeat contempt by leading with love. Acknowledge things you appreciate about your partner, validate their emotions and slowly lead in to discussing your own needs.


4) Stone Walling

Refusing to communicate or “giving the silent treatment” is used as an unhealthy coping skill to avoid conflict. It could also be used to punish their partner. Stone walling is where one goes long periods of time without connecting or communicating. This may make a partner who is anxious become more aggressive in their communication as they feel unheard and dismissed. 


Defeat Stone Walling by communicating that you are emotionally flooded and need space to clear your mind. This allows for self-soothing and emotional regulation.  It is imperative that you let your partner know that you will be back to address the problem once calm to avoid feelings of abandonment.


If any of these communication styles sound familiar, then it may be helpful to connect with a therapist trained in working with couples and improving relationships. Please contact us to schedule a consult.

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