Gottman’s Four Horsemen

It isn’t always easy to fight well. Ideally, we would calmly talk things over in the moment when issues came up, and leave feeling heard, validated and understood with a plan for how to avoid these issues in the future. But this is not always how it goes. Do you find yourself having the same arguments with your partner over and over? Or, on the other hand, do you both avoid conflict and let resentments build to the point where one of you eventually blows up in anger and frustration? Do you feel like issues rarely get resolved? Do you leave an argument feeling more hurt, angry or frustrated then when it began?

You may be using what researcher and therapist, John Gottman, identified as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

Gottman's Four Horseman include

  • Criticism- negatively judging and ascribing behaviors as character flaws
  • Contempt- using verbal and non verbal communication that puts your partner down and portrays a sense of superiority
  • Defensiveness- placing blame on your partner and avoiding responsibility
  • Stonewalling- shutting down, walking away or ignoring your partner.

These harmful communication strategies, while all too common, can really wreak havoc on a relationship. Gottman reportedly could predict with a 95% accuracy which couples would likely break up based upon their conflict management style, specifically the use of the “Horsemen.” But not to worry, it is possible to improve your communication habits, become more self aware, and learn to resolve conflict effectively. Many couples choose to work with a couples therapist to help them identify and improve communication patterns, but if you’re curious to start the assessment on your own, follow the guide below.


Identifying Communication Patterns

Think about your most recent fight(s) with your partner, or perhaps one that really stands out. As a couple, you could even agree to record your next fight to assist in the assessment process. You may find that at times you’ve done almost all of these behaviors. What matters more is the frequency or severity of the behaviors. Focus on patterns. What is your go to? Or your top 5 most used?

You may also like your partner to take this assessment for themselves. Of course it's often easier to spot your partner's use of the Gottman's Four Horsemen, but the purpose of this exercise is to gain insight into your own habits. See if you can just focus on your own contributions to your relationship's conflict pattern, and ask your partner to do the same. In a calm moment, you and your partner may want to compare notes and discuss what you each learned about yourself and how you might like to change your own habits.


ASSESSMENT

During fights do you more often than not:

  • Use expressions like “you always/never do X”
  • Make statements starting with “You”
  • Point out a character flaw, “You are so lazy, rude, annoying, mean etc…”
  • Bring up past grievances
  • Make negative assumptions about the other’s intentions
  • Eye roll or dramatically sigh
  • Use sarcasm
  • Mock, sneer, or scoff
  • Speak in a condescending tone
  • Name call, personally attack, or insult
  • Say things you don’t mean or regret later
  • Rattle off a list of what your partner did wrong
  • Explain why you were justified in doing what you did
  • Say things like “I only did that because...”
  • Have trouble admitting when you’re wrong
  • Have trouble admitting you hurt your partner’s feelings
  • Shut down and stop talking
  • Walk away or leave without explanation
  • Wish you could escape the situation
  • Leave the issue unresolved/brush it under the rug
  • Get overwhelmed, clam up, feel foggy
  • Get tongue tied and trouble expressing your thoughts and feelings


Reflection

The first section corresponds to Criticism, second to Contempt, third to Defensiveness, and fourth to Stonewalling. In which category did you check off the most boxes? You could consider that this behavior is something to examine. Go over your answers with your partner. Remember, this is not a moment for criticism! Explore in a compassionate and loving way, knowing that we can all make communication blunders and we are just here to understand ourselves better. Did your partner agree that you did the behaviors you identified? Did they think you did ones you didn’t identify? People can have two different memories of the same event, especially when heightened emotions are involved. Even if you don’t agree that you do something your partner says, take a moment and get curious. See if you can find out what you did that made your partner feel this way. Perhaps you are coming off in a way you don’t intend to, or don’t realize you do certain behaviors and they are just automatic. Becoming aware of how you act in conflict and how you affect your partner is the first step to improving conflicts.

These behaviors also do not exist in a vacuum. Oftentimes, the partner who begins criticizing or expressing contempt is met with defensiveness and stonewalling, which can trigger more criticism and contempt. The nuances of these dynamics may differ slightly for each unique relationship, but the patterns often remain similar. Once you’ve identified what traits you and your partner most identify with, take a moment to reflect with your partner on how you might be impacting each other. What is your negative communication cycle?

Gottman's four horsemen are common fighting tactics, so don’t feel ashamed if you notice you or your partner use them, just take note. Knowledge is power, and the more self aware you are the more you can shift behaviors to create a more healthy and fulfilling relationship dynamic.

If you are feeling like you could use some more support around how to recognize and shift unhelpful communication patterns, an individual or couples therapy session is just the place! You can schedule online or call 267-428-2615 to set up an appointment.