marriage or divorceCouples often develop unhealthy styles of interacting during conflict. This leads the couple to feel stuck, overwhelmed, and discouraged.

The list below outlines four primary negative habits that lead to the disintegrating of a relationship. Referred to as the Four Horsemen, it was developed through years of research by Dr. John Gottman.

To help eliminate these behaviors from your relationship, read through the definitions and the steps for overcoming each one.


Criticism is when a person blames their partner using broad, global statements. These usually include words such as “always” or “never”.  Such generalizations make the recipient of the criticism feel defensive.


  • “You are the reason we are always late! Don’t you care about me at all?”
  • “You never think about me when you make these decisions.”
  • “You could not be more thoughtless if you tried.”
  • “You are such a negative person.”

Change Criticism into Complaining

Alternatively, a complaint is a statement communicating displeasure about a specific behavior or event.

  • Before you air a complaint, check your motivation. Do you want your partner to know about something that bothers you or do you want to hurt your partner? Remember to focus on your experience rather than your partner’s behavior.
  • Set up a time to talk with your partner. Choose a moment when your partner has the opportunity to focus on you without distraction.
  • State your complaint in a calm tone and be as specific as you can about what is upsetting you.
  • If you do catch yourself criticizing your partner, admit it and make amends. Apologize for being critical, and restate your complaint in a way that is easier to hear.


  • “When we are late it I feel embarrassed. I would like to leave an additional 10 minutes early from whatever time we agree on in the future.”
  • “When you make a decision without talking to me first I feel left out and ignored. What can we do about this decision now? What are our options? Let’s talk about it.”
  • “When you don’t let me know when you leave from work I get worried and I begin to doubt you care about me.”
  • “Those comments you made about the weekend come off negative to me and makes me feel disappointed or like I failed you somehow.”


Defensiveness comes from the desire to protect yourself and uphold your good intentions or character. In a relationship, this usually occurs in response to a perceived attack from your partner. A sure sign of defensiveness is when you or your partner throw responsibility for a conflict back onto the other person.


  • Denying responsibility – “It wasn’t my fault.”
  • Making excuses – “I couldn’t help it.”
  • Counter-complaining – “You waste our money.” “You never clean the house!”

Change Defensiveness into Taking Responsibility

  • Slow yourself down and listen to what is bothering your partner, even if it is not delivered appropriately.
  • Sum up what your partner is trying to tell you and ask questions if you need to understand more.
  • Admit where you contributed to the issue you are discussing. This allows you to admit you are not a perfect person, and you are aware you can make life complicated for your partner.
  • Offer amends by apologizing, and come up with ideas for preventing the problem in the future.


  • “You’re right. I could have made a different choice.”
  • “I did not call you. That’s my fault. I know we agreed I would before I left. I’m sorry.”
  • “I do understand how that would be frustrating for you. In the future I will set a reminder on my phone to text you before I leave. Would that help?”


Contempt is any behavior or statement that elevates you above your partner. It displays a superior attitude and comes from holding onto resentment from past hurts and unresolved fights. Past hurt turns into righteous indignation. A clear sign of contempt is thinking you would never have the flaws your partner displays.

Contempt is the quickest way to erode respect and admiration for each other.


  • name-calling
  • insults
  • hostile humor
  • mockeryHolding Hands for Repair
  • eye-rolling

Change Contempt into a Culture of Praise

  • Notice what your partner contributes to your life, home, and family. Observe the everyday tasks such as going to work, waking up early, filling the gas tank, cleaning the dishes, walking the dog, etc.
  • Express appreciation for these tasks with a simple thank you or small gesture of kindness such as a note or gift.
  • Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. The more you notice and express appreciation, the more it impacts your perspective. The act of appreciation is not just for your partner, it changes YOUR attitude and feelings as well


  • “Thank you for making dinner. It’s a big task for our family. I appreciate it.”
  • “Thank you for taking on the yard work. I know it’s grueling. You do a great job.”
  • “You did a great job today. I know work was stressful and the kids were crazy, but you truly were very calm and collected today. Thank you.”


Stonewalling occurs when a person emotionally or physically withdraws from interaction. The person who stonewalls disengages from interaction and refuses to communicate. It is their response to feeling overwhelmed or flooded with emotion.


  • Physically leaving the situation
  • Purposeful extended silence
  • Brooding, continually thinking about the wrongs you’ve endured
  • Evasive or defensive body language (crossed arms/legs, turned away from partner)

Change Stonewalling into Self-Soothing and Re-Engagement

  • Notice if you are becoming too emotionally flooded to be productive and cooperative in a conversation. The first emotions you may notice are anger, frustration, or hopelessness.
  • Ask to take a break for 20-30 minutes and agree to check back in with one another. Establish when, where and who will initiate the check-in. The person who asks for the break is responsible to re-engage.
  • During the break, do something that helps redirect your focus and energy. Read a book, take a walk, listen to music, walk the dog, etc.
  • Check back in with your partner as to whether you are both ready to try again. If not, repeat the process of steps 1, 2, and 3.
  • If you are unable to redo the conversation within a reasonable amount of time, try going to bed or doing some other “normal” activity together. Agree to return to the conversation when you both have had a break from the topic.


  • “I need a break.’
  • “I am way too angry to be good at this conversation right now. Let’s talk after I take the dog out.”
  • “Can we take 20 minutes, grab a snack and watch a show…then try again?”

For further information on the these behaviors, how to change them, or the research behind them, please go to John Gottman’s blog.

If you notice these behaviors in your own relationship, and are struggling to overcome them, contact us to set up a counseling session.