Gottman's Four Horsemen | Counseling | Therapy

Gottman's Four Horsemen

Samantha Eisenberg , MSW, LCSW, MED, LMT — Therapist

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According to researcher and couple’s therapist, John Gottman, only 30% of a couple's fights are finite and solvable. That means 70% of fights are chronic and a by-product of different personalities and temperaments. In other words, there is always going to be a difference in each person’s promptness, cleanliness, reactivity, and other factors that are bound to cause conflict in the relationship. As such, Gottman encourages couples to focus on managing conflict since it is inherent in relationships. How we communicate during fights can have a significant impact on the outcome of those interactions.

Gottman identified four harmful communication approaches called the Four Horsemen that should be avoided during fights. Based upon your assessment completed in the previous tip, you should have some insight into which of Gottman’s Four Horsemen you and your partner use most frequently. The next step is to understand how to change these maladaptive communication styles into more supportive and productive approaches.

Below is a more in depth description of each of Gottman’s Four Horsemen (Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling) and what Gottman calls their “Antidotes” (I statements, Appreciation, Taking Responsibility, and Physiological Self Soothing). Gottman acknowledges that we all engage in some of these negative behaviors during conflict, but it is the frequency and lack of repair work that really impacts the relationship. However, he pointed out that contempt is the most harmful and toxic horseman and should be avoided at all costs.

Gottman’s Four Horsemen and Their Antidotes

HORSEMAN: Criticism

-Character judgement

-You statement

-Focused on patterns

-Not time specific

-Places blame on your partner

-Often met with defensiveness

Examples of Criticism

-“You Always/Never…”

-“You are so mean, stupid, lazy, boring, selfish, annoying…”

-“I feel like You…”

“I can’t believe you told your mom about our fight. You are so inconsiderate and whiny! You can’t be trusted! You always complain to people outside our relationship. You must want me to look bad to them.”

“You never return my phone calls. You must not care about me, or maybe you’re cheating on me.”


-”I feel (feeling), when you do (specific action), and in the future I’d like you to (do this other specific action)”

-Focused on how a specific action makes you feel

-Can take ownership of how you perceived something, reflect on why you were triggered, and share a deeper understanding of yourself without blaming, inferring or assuming negative intentions

-Softer, more vulnerable approach

-Offers request for specific change of action

-Gives a chance to explain why something is important to you

Examples of I statement

-”I felt hurt and exposed when you told your mother about our fight, because it is important for me to feel safe to share things with you and I think our arguments should be private. In the future I would like you to keep things between us or perhaps talk to someone who is less closely involved in our lives.”

“I feel insecure and anxious when you don’t return my calls. I’m someone who needs more communication in a relationship. Would you be willing to text me more regularly or let me know when you’ll be unable to respond for a while?”

HORSEMAN: Contempt

-Conveys disgust, superiority, and disrespect

-Is unkind if not cruel

-Most harmful of Gottman’s Four Horsemen

-Verbal or nonverbal communication

-Can shut the other person down or escalate the fight

Examples of Contempt

-Name calling

-Insults and “low blows”


-Speaking in a condescending tone




-Eye rolling

-Sarcasm within context of fight

-”Why don’t you explain it to me, since, apparently, you know everything.”

-”You are just like your mother. Materialistic and selfish.”

-”Rational people would understand [my perception of the issue].”


-Giving partner the benefit of the doubt (softened start up)

-Assuming good intent

-Focusing on partner’s good qualities

-Lifts partner up instead of putting them down

-A more disarming approach

-A positive feeling or understanding you could express to your partner (should feel authentic)

Examples of Appreciation

-“I know you didn’t mean to do...”

-“You might not have realized I felt this way/that this impacted me like that...”

-“I’m sure it wasn’t your intention to hurt my feelings…”

-”I appreciate you considering my perspective/needs/feelings…”

-”I understand you need someone to talk to about our problems....”

-”I know you must be busy and don’t always have time to look at your phone…”

HORSEMAN: Defensiveness

-Reverses the blame

-Dismisses or invalidates your partner’s feelings

-Form of self protection

-Often triggers defensiveness from other person

-Only focuses on your intention and not on how you action was perceived

Examples of Defensiveness

-“I only told my mom about the fight because you told your friends about it.”

-”You never focus on what I do right.”

-“I didn’t call you back because you call me too much and I need space” (this is also passive aggressive)

-”I called you back the next day, what’s the big deal?”

-”I can never win no matter what I do because in your mind I am always wrong.”


-Validates the other person’s feelings

-Acknowledges your role in the conflict

-Considers the other person’s perspective

-Helps your partner feel seen, heard and understood

-Often deescalates conflict

-Does not mean you’re admitting ill intent

-Gives opportunity to empathize and build intimacy

-Gives opportunity to explore compromises and problem solve

Examples of Taking Responsibility

-“I’m sorry I hurt you when I did..., I see how that could be upsetting…”

“I didn’t realize you felt like..., but now that I know I will be more mindful to do/not do…”

-”I get/see that I hurt you or made you feel…by doing...”

-”I see how telling my mom could make you feel unsafe to share with me and might make you embarrassed around her…”

“-I totally see how your mind could wander when you don’t hear from me, I don’t always think about how others perceive it because I personally don’t like to text a lot, but if you’re feeling anxious about it I could let you know if I’ll be busy…”

HORSEMAN: Stonewalling

-Sign that you are flooded and overwhelmed with emotions

-Sympathetic nervous system is activated making it hard to think clearly and calmly

-Flight or Freeze response

-Seems to partner as is they’re being ignored or dismissed

-Often makes partner fight harder to be heard, which makes stonewaller shut down further

-Can be a trauma response or learned behavior

-Not letting your partner know how you’re feeling or that you need a break from the conflict

Examples of Stonewalling

-Withdrawing or shutting down during and argument

-Walking away without explanation

-Refusing to talk more and avoiding the conflict

-Stress response is activated, ex- sweaty palms, fidgeting or catatonic, shallow breathing, upset stomach, headache, foggy thoughts


-Activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System

-Allows argument to be put on hold so it does not escalate further

-Often takes 20 minutes to fully calm down

-Gives time to think and respond more effectively

-Could prevent you from saying something hurtful

-Do not spend your break from the argument stewing in your anger, instead try...

-Breathing exercises

-Going for a walk

-Taking a bath or shower

-Reading or listening to music

-Making art

-Taking a nap

Examples of Initiating Self Soothing

-”I’m feeling overwhelmed, let’s push pause and talk in 30 minutes…”

-”I’m really upset right now and don’t want to say something I don’t really mean, can we sleep on it and talk tomorrow?”

-”I’m having trouble thinking clearly because conflict triggers my trauma response, I’ll let you know when I’m ready to talk...”

-”You called me a name and are speaking in a condescending tone, which is crossing the line and not how we agreed to argue, I think we should take a time out and talk in 20 minutes when we can agree to fight fairly...”

Incorporating Healthier Communication Strategies

Now that you understand more about the different styles, it is important that you are proactive about incorporating these new approaches into everyday practice. For the next few weeks, prior to talking to your partner about any issues that might be experiencing, take a moment and write out what you would want to say and think about how you might normally say it. Then evaluate what you have written and see if any of Gottman’s Four Horsemen might have accidently slipped in. If so, then modify your responses to include the antidotes. Review your notes before your next conversation and practice saying the modified reponses. This may seem foreign or clunky in the beginning, but it is important that you keep practicing until it becomes a new habit.

If you are feeling like you could use some more support with shifting 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.

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