• Navigating the Four Horsemen of Relationships and Antidotes for a Stronger Connection

    Relationships are the cornerstone of our emotional well-being and personal growth, but they can also be very challenging and complex. One of the main reasons people seek therapy is for couples counseling to help navigate those challenges inherent in a relationship.

    The Gottman Method is one of a number of modalities I use in helping couples during those times. I find it a valuable indicator of relationship success and provides tools that can often help turn a relationship around if it looks like it’s heading for a divorce or a breakup.


    What is the Gottman Method?

    Dr. John Gottman, a renowned researcher, psychologist, and relationship expert, has dedicated his career to studying what makes relationships thrive or fail. Through his decades of research, he developed the Gottman Method, a comprehensive approach to understanding and strengthening relationships.

    The Gottman Method is a research-based approach to couples therapy that aims to improve relationship satisfaction and prevent relationship deterioration. Dr. John Gottman and his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, are the founders of the Gottman Institute, where they conduct research, deliver training, and provide therapy based on their ongoing findings. Their pioneering research has shed light on the dynamics that contribute to relationship success and failure, providing invaluable insights into fostering healthy and fulfilling partnerships.

    One of the key principles of the Gottman Method is in couples’ conversational patterns.

    Conversational patterns that involve interest and respect, even in discussions about mundane topics, play a crucial role in maintaining happiness in relationships. According to their research, couples who actively respond and engage with each other in healthy ways have a higher chance of sustaining a satisfying connection. This is often measured by the concept of the Emotional Bank Account.

    This highlights the importance of expressing interest or acknowledgment in a 20:1 ratio of turning toward each other as opposed to turning away. In conversations, this may look like actively and genuinely engaging with your partner’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It involves showing curiosity, empathy, and respect for what your partner is saying. Even during relationship conflicts, the most successful couples strive to maintain a 5:1 ratio of turning toward each other rather than turning away. This emphasizes the significance of nurturing positive interactions and responsiveness, even in the midst of disagreement, to foster a resilient and fulfilling relationship.

    In general, the goal of couples therapy is to focus on enhancing your understanding of each other’s needs, improving communication, fostering mutual respect and appreciation, and overall, helping each of you to get the most satisfaction possible out of your relationship.

    Most often, this involves helping you to repair some of the wounds and pain that each of us suffers from – even in the very best of relationships.



    Repairing relationships emphasizes the importance of emotional attunement, conflict management, and the cultivation of shared meaning in relationships.

    The process of repair requires the ability to self-regulate our emotions when we are triggered and a commitment to gaining self-awareness of how we positively or negatively communicate. It requires listening to our partner, listening to ourselves, and also understanding why we communicate the way we do. This will help each of us identify what unmet needs we have and how best to enhance our abilities to have those needs met whenever possible.

    In this article, we will explore the principles of the Gottman Method as it relates to their “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and provide antidotes to counteract their harmful influence, ultimately nurturing a stronger and more fulfilling connection.

    The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

    The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are communication patterns identified by the Gottmans that predict relationship dissatisfaction and potential breakdown. These destructive behaviors, if left unchecked, can erode the foundation of trust, emotional safety, and intimacy, which, if left to run rampant, can ultimately lead to a breakup or divorce.

    You may be familiar with the Five Love Languages. The Four Horsemen are the opposite, more like the hate languages that can erode a relationship.

    Here are the Four Horsemen, their definitions, and the antidote to turn these harmful communication patterns around:


    Criticism involves attacking the character or personality of your partner rather than addressing specific behaviors. It often includes sweeping generalizations and negative judgments. For example, saying, “You always forget to take out the trash. You’re so lazy and irresponsible,” is a critical statement that attacks your partner’s character.


    Antidote: Gentle Start-Up

    The antidote to criticism is to practice a gentle start-up.

    Timing is certainly important. Consider when might be better times than others to initiate these conversations. Waiting until you are both calm is certainly ideal.

    Also, instead of blaming your partner, express your needs using “I” statements. Your partner may feel attacked when using “you” statements with a negative judgment attached to them.

    For instance, say, “I feel overwhelmed when the trash isn’t taken out. Can we find a way to share this responsibility?” Engage in the conversation as a problem to solve together. It is important to genuinely consider each other’s feelings, wants, wishes, and desires.

    One of the most important elements of a gentle start-up is to be mindful of our tone of voice. The Gottmans highly recommend using a soft tone of voice that comes from a place inside you that is genuinely calm, empathic, and respectful.

    It is also important to understand that there are going to be times when you may need to compromise and negotiate. Having this as a shared value will help with your gentle start-ups.


    Clearly communicate what you would like your partner to do or change, focusing on specific actions rather than using judgments. It is also helpful to highlight the positive outcome you desire from the situation to create a shared purpose and beneficial outcome.

    Then there is eliciting their buy-in and agreement such that they agree to take on these actions, rather than saying how you want it to be and then being upset a month later when they didn’t do what I you wanted and retorting, “but we talked about it” in a blaming way.

    Above all, it is important to engender a sense of assuming goodwill between the two of you. This is challenging work to do in a relationship, and the assumption of goodwill is going to help because each of you is going to make mistakes. Humility can be a welcome commodity.
    This also helps to build your Emotional Bank Account of good and positive experiences, and that can certainly help promote a gentle start-up.


    Contempt is characterized by an attitude of superiority and disdain towards your partner. It often involves sarcasm, name-calling, mockery, and hostile humor. For example, rolling your eyes when your partner shares their opinion or calling them demeaning names demonstrates contempt.

    Antidote: Cultivate a Culture of Appreciation

    Counteract contempt by creating a culture of appreciation within your relationship. Focus on your partner’s positive qualities and express gratitude when they make an effort in relationship connection and intimacy.



    One of the most painful dynamics to witness in relationships is a lack of appreciation for each other. Lack of even a small amount of gratitude can leave someone feeling discounted, sad, inadequate, unappreciated, and unworthy. These are painful emotions when we don’t sense we are valued.

    While it may sound trite to say “count your blessings,” appreciating what you have in your partnership and the giving and receiving of gratitude is a core piece of having a meaningful and deep connection in your relationship.

    While in conversations, show empathy and strive to understand their perspective, even during moments of disagreement. Building a foundation of emotional intimacy and gratitude helps prevent attitudes of contempt.


    Defensiveness is a natural response to criticism or perceived attacks. It involves denying responsibility, making excuses, or counter-attacking. For example, responding to a partner’s complaint about feeling neglected by saying, “It’s not my fault. I’ve been busy at work. You’re always nagging me” is a defensive response.



    Antidote: Take Responsibility and Offer Validation

    Taking responsibility for your part in a conflict can help diffuse defensiveness and promote healthier communication. Take a moment to reflect on your own reactions and behaviors in your conflict. Be aware of your own defensive tendencies and the impact they may have on you and your partner.

    Model the kind of behavior you want. Instead of deflecting blame or making excuses, take responsibility for your role in the conflict. Recognize and admit where you may have acted in a way that contributed to the issue at hand. If you realize you have made a mistake or hurt your partner, offer a genuine apology. Express remorse and show a willingness to make amends.

    Offering validation is an essential component of effective communication in relationships. It involves acknowledging and understanding your partner’s perspective, even if you disagree with it. When you offer validation of their feelings or experience, you can create a safe space for you and your partner to express themselves without triggering defensiveness.

    There are three steps to offering validation:

    1. Practice active listening – when conflicts arise, make a conscious effort to actively listen to your partner’s concerns and feelings. Give them your full attention, maintain eye contact, and avoid interrupting. Show genuine interest in understanding their perspective – as if you genuinely care (as I hope you do!).



    2. Reflect their emotions – reflect back the emotions your partner is expressing to show that you understand and validate their feelings. Use phrases such as, “I can see that you’re feeling frustrated” or “It sounds like you are upset.” If you don’t identify their feelings right the first time, keep trying and seek to understand.

    3. Empathize with their experience – put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine how they may be feeling. Express empathy by saying things like, “I can understand why you would feel that way given the circumstances.”

    The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility and offering validation. Instead of being defensive, acknowledge your part in the situation, validate your partner’s feelings, and express empathy. This defuses defensiveness and paves the way for healthier dialogue.


    Stonewalling occurs when one partner defensively withdraws from the interaction, emotionally shutting down and avoiding communication. It often manifests as silence, disengagement, or physically leaving the room during a discussion. Stonewalling makes the other partner feel ignored, unimportant, and dismissed.



    Antidote: Engage in Self-Soothing and Time-Outs

    To counteract stonewalling, it is crucial to address the emotional withdrawal and create a safe space for open communication.

    Stonewalling often occurs when one partner becomes overwhelmed by emotions during a conflict and emotionally shuts down. To counteract this, it is essential to engage in self-soothing activities and take time-outs. Step away from the conflict temporarily, and engage in healthy activities that help you relax and de-stress, such as deep breathing exercises, going for a walk, or listening to soothing music.

    It’s important to recognize the signs of emotional overwhelm and communicate the need for a break to regain your emotional balance. All too often, we get into fights that are emotionally over-heated and say things we don’t mean.

    Set a time to return to the discussion. This allows both partners to regain composure and approach any conflict with a clearer mindset.

    Stonewalling often is often demonstrated as simply not engaging in your relationship. It is crucial to communicate needs, wants, and desires in successful relationships. However, discussions are best held when both partners are calm and ready to engage constructively.

    When you come back together, consider the importance of repairing the emotional connection between you. During a conflict, if you feel yourself stonewalling or if your partner recognizes your withdrawal, use gentle touch or a phrase to signal that you want to repair the connection. It can be as simple as reaching for their hand or saying, “I want to work through this with you.”

    Then take turns expressing feelings and needs, ensuring that each of you has an opportunity to speak and be heard without interruption. Use “I” statements, active listening, reflecting emotions, and empathy to promote understanding and connection.

    Stopping stonewalling requires a combination of self-awareness, self-regulation, and committing to an intentional effort to repair the emotional connection. By engaging in self-soothing activities and committing to connecting in conversation, you can create a safe and productive space for conflict resolution, promoting understanding and strengthening your relationship.

    The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse can wreak havoc on our relationships if we allow them to persist. However, by implementing the antidotes provided, you can reverse their damaging effects and create a stronger, more intimate, and more fulfilling connection with your partner.


    Remember to replace criticism with expressing needs through gentle start-ups, cultivate a culture of felt and expressed appreciation for your partner to counteract contempt, take responsibility and offer validation instead of becoming defensive, and engage in time-outs and reconnection efforts to address stonewalling. By adopting these antidotes, you can transform your relationship; foster understanding and empathy; feel and express gratitude; and deepen emotional intimacy.

    You both deserve that.

    Even the best of relationships can be challenging! If you or your relationship need support to help explore a more profound connection, I invite you to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if I am a good fit for you or your relationship.