Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

In my last post, I introduced you to The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse which according to internationally renowned relationship expert John Gottman, are patterns of communication so destructive to love, they are reliable predictors of a terminally unhappy relationship. Although all partners participate in these counterproductive behaviours at times, it is the persistent engagement in them that mark a difficult relationship in need of serious attention.

These toxic behaviours have their root in powerlessness, that is, they often happen when people are frustrated about the situation they are in and feel powerless to do anything about it.

When you or your partner cannot engage in conflict in a healthy manner and use The Four Horsemen consistently, it is time to learn safer and more effective ways to talk about your differences. To do that, you have to change a lot of things in the way you relate to each other.

Let’s recap The Four Horsemen and look at some effective ways of dealing with them.


Criticism is an attack on the person or specifically it's an attack on the person's character or personality. Criticism is unhelpful because you're suggesting that the problem is the other person. But does that mean that you shouldn't say anything about your partner's behaviour that upsets you? Of course not. Expressing your feelings, even strong feelings is fine. But it's how you do it that matters.

Criticism vs. complaints

There is a big difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint addresses a specific action or non-action and is different to criticism in that a complaint targets a behaviour you want to change but with criticism, you are blaming the other person.  

Here is an example: You have discovered that the toilet seat is up.

Criticism:What's WRONG with you?  Are you that lazy that you won't even put down a toilet seat after you use it?"

Complaint: “The toilet seat is up again.  Please try to put it down after you use it."

Antidotes to criticism:

- Be willing to let go of blaming your partner.

- Find the request/wish/need behind the criticism.

- Address the behaviour you do not like, do not attack the person.

- Soften your start-up. Begin tactfully, be clear and describe what is happening - don't evaluate or judge.

- Be assertive and use "I" statements: "I feel...I want.." etc.

- Learn to make specific complaints and requests ("When X happened, I felt Y, I want Z").

It can be really challenging to break a chronic pattern of criticising but for the sake of a happier relationship, it is essential that you learn to re-word your criticisms into complaints.


Contempt is any statement or non-verbal behaviour that attacks your partner's sense of self with intention to insult or psychologically abuse him or her. It communicates blatant disrespect for your partner and puts you on a higher ground. It is fuelled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the other person instead of what is positive or what you can appreciate about them. Nothing is more destructive to love than contempt.

To fight contempt, couples need to work very hard to create a culture of appreciation. Both of you may be feeling very unappreciated in the relationship. To change this around, it is important to actively change your mindset.

Antidotes to contempt: 

 - Be willing to resolve issues and differences without insults, name-calling, hostile humour or sarcasm and mockery.

 - Be aware of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours and understand what it is that you are really upset about. Target that rather than using passive-aggressive ways to tell your partner how you feel.

 - Use “I feel… I want…” statements when expressing your thoughts and feelings. 

 - Rewrite your inner script: replace thoughts of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood with thoughts of appreciation.

- Catch your partner doing something right, and tell them you appreciate them for what they are doing. A good rule of thumb is to remember the 5:1 ratio — five positive interactions to every one negative interaction.


Defensiveness is an attempt to protect yourself, to defend your innocence or to ward off a perceived attack. It’s usually done by counter-attacking (e.g. “Me? What about you?”). Sometimes however, you think you are under attack but you really aren’t but it feels like it, so you get defensive.

When feeling under attack (whether actual or perceived), it’s understandable that people get defensive. That’s why it is such a difficult habit to break however, defensiveness rarely works because it’s really another way of blaming.

Accept responsibility/influence

The ability to accept some responsibility, no matter how small, is a cure for defensiveness. You look for what you agree with in what your partner is saying, not what you disagree with.  When you accept what your partner is saying (however minor) you communicate: “I hear you. What you say matters….”.

Here is an example of a defensive and a non-defensive response to the raised toilet seat scenario:

Defensiveness: “I didn’t even use the bathroom. How could I have left up the toilet seat?”

Accepting influence: “I know you asked me before to try to keep it down. I don’t remember even being in there, but I’ll put it down the next time.”

Antidotes to defensiveness:

- Use active listening: Maybe what you heard isn't what was said. Check out with your partner whether you heard it accurately before you jump into defending yourself.

- Accept some responsibility for what your partner is bringing to you. Don't bat it back, don't deny all charges.

- Use the 5% rule: Treat any complaint as if 5% of it were true. Ask yourself: "If 5% of what he/she says is true and the rest isn't, what would the 5% truth be?"

- Learn to get 'undefended': Scan for what whatever is valid in your partner's complaint and take responsibility to address it. Ask yourself: "What can I learn from this?...what can I do about it?"


In stonewalling, you withdraw or disengage from an interaction with your partner. Rather than confronting the issues, you make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away or keeping busy. There is reluctance to directly express what you are thinking or feeling. Stonewalling may be an attempt to calm yourself (or the situation) down, but is generally not an effective strategy.

The antidote to stonewalling is to learn to calm yourself down actively and then to re-engage in the conversation.

Antidotes to stonewalling:

- Check for feelings of being emotionally overwhelmed (i.e. emotional flooding).

- Take time out: Tell your partner you need a break from the conflict discussion. You can disengage from the conversation with a phrase such as: "Let's take a break...I'm feeling flooded....Let's leave this for another time when we're calmer".

- Assure your partner that you will return to the conversation when you're both ready. This is not an excuse to permanently avoid dealing with the issue. During your time out, do something soothing or calming like listening to music, reading a magazine or whatever works for you. Try taking several slow, deep breaths.

- Address your fear/s of what will happen if you express your thoughts and feelings directly to your partner.

Need some more antidotes for these problem behaviours? Here are some suggestions:

- Speak respectfully even when angry.

- Validate what your partner is saying: let your partner know what makes sense to you about what they are saying.

- Practise holding your partner in warm regard even when feeling distant or during a fight. Let go of any unhelpful stories that you are making up.

- Always live up to agreements or renegotiate if you can't.

- Make all requests of your partner clear, simple and specific.

- Share compliments, appreciations and praise daily.

- Work on your friendship and building your connection with one another when you're not fighting. The fact is, couples are better at repairing their negative interactions when they basically feel close and connected, and are good friends.

Breaking patterns like this is easier when you are both motivated and committed to change. However, if you and your partner are finding it difficult to replace The Four Horsemen with more loving behaviours, then seeing a couples therapist can help kick-start the use of healthier communication tools and to re-establish intimacy in your relationship.

Couples counselling is however NOT a quick fix. It requires commitment to the therapeutic process and to each other but the hard work eventually pays off!

Here are some resources to get you started:

- Visit Dr John Gottman's website at

- Read Gottman, J. & Silver, N. The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work. Orion, 1999.