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Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

My previous blogs looked at the findings from relationship research carried out by Dr John Gottman and what he calls “the four horsemen”: these are patterns of behaviour which accurately predict relationship breakdown: criticism and contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Gottman also put forward what he termed the antidotes to the four horsemen – these are proven ways of building strong relationships that are able to weather all storms!

Gottman’s research showed that being able to identify the Four Horsemen in our conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication and conflict patterns, we must replace them with healthy, productive ones. Click here for the antidotes to criticism and contempt, and this blog looks at ways to counteract the other two horsemen: defensiveness and stonewalling. 

The antidote to defensiveness

According to Gottman, the solution here is simple: “take responsibility.” We cannot begin to address conflict unless both partners take responsibility for their part. This may well involve making ourselves vulnerable – we might need to step up, accept blame, and tell our partner how we might make amends, as in this example:

Partner 1: “Did you pay the gas and electric bills this month- you said you would.”

Defensive Partner: “How am I supposed to remember to pay ALL of our bills when I’m also in charge of supervising the childrens’ homework, cooking, cleaning AND visiting your sick mother? This is supposed to be a 50 / 50 partnership – it’s more like 90 / 10!”

 Non-defensive Partner: “Oh no, I’m so sorry – I totally forgot about it. It’s been such a crazy month for all of us, hasn’t it? Give me five minutes and I’ll go online and pay and we can sit down and have a cup of tea and a chat!”

The antidote to stonewalling

Sometimes, we are so flooded with emotion that NOT stonewalling means we might become extremely agitated and enraged which isn’t a solution. But disengaging and withdrawing isn’t a solution either.

So instead, we should agree with our partner to take breaks during a conflict. Couples sometimes agree on a neutral signal for telling our partner that we need a break. Gottman says that “this can be a word, a phrase, a physical motion, or simply raising both hands into a stop position. And if you choose a silly or ridiculous signal, you may find that the very use of it helps to de-escalate the situation.” That way, we can go take 20 minutes to cool down, and come back and discuss the conflict in a calm, collected manner.  

Learn how to handle our emotions

A longer-term solution is to learn how to better handle our own emotions. Instead of engaging in defensiveness, which only causes us to sit with our own anger (“he’s being unfair! I’m the victim here!”), we need to develop the tools that help us to de-escalate our feelings. The best way to manage emotional flooding is to self-soothe (by taking time out, by being compassionate to both ourselves and our partners) and when the time is right, to attempt to re-engage by using soothing touch (holding hands, a hug.)

Here are a few final recommendations for avoiding the four horsemen:

Step 1: Recognise that we are using them:

Before we “fix” these horsemen, we have to first notice them. For example:

  • Does your partner get sad or hurt after you share feedback with them? If so, that’s criticism.
  • How often do you tell your partner how much you appreciate something them? If you don’t, that could be contempt.
  • Are you responding to your partner by trying to convince them of why you are right? If so, that’s defensiveness.
  • Do you find yourself shutting down, walking away, or spacing out during disagreements? Does your partner complain that you won’t open up or talk about your emotions? If so, that’s stonewalling.

Step 2: Point them out.

It has to start with owning our own part in it. Talk about what we notice ourselves doing, how we feel, and then we can use an ‘I statement’ once the dialogue is opened to share how we feel when we notice these patterns happening. 

Step 3: Use the antidotes – a quick reminder

To counteract criticism

 Tell your partner what you would prefer them to do, rather than what is lacking. Avoid making “you” statements or using the words ‘always’ or ‘never.’”

To counteract defensiveness

Take responsibility for your actions. Own your mistakes and have self-compassion.”

To counteract contempt

Practice talking about your feelings, your needs, and identifying what you appreciate about your partner.

To counteract stonewalling

Self-soothe, take a break to engage in an activity that makes you feel calm (like meditation, a walk, drink some water, listen to music), and re-engage in the discussion when you are feeling calmer.

Favourite resources 

These are some of my favourite writers and speakers about communication:

  1. Say What You Mean – A Mindful Approach to Non-Violent Communication –  book by Oren Jay Sofer 
  2. Rick Hanson – a series of excellent podcasts he has made with his son Forest about all kinds of human relationships . Rick is a highly respected psychologist and author.   
  3. Dr John Gottman – world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, John Gottman has conducted 50 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples. He predicted divorce with 90% accuracy based on the first three minutes of a conversation. What he noticed was that couples who started their conflict conversation with criticism and elicited defensiveness in their partner ended up divorcing whereas couples who used “gentle start ups” or began their conversation expressing their feelings and needs stayed together.His excellent website contains numerous videos and blogs about his work and findings.
  4. Esther Perel “Where should we begin?” Psychotherapist Esther Perel is the New York Times bestselling author of The State of Affairs and Mating in Captivity. Her TED talks have generated more than 20 million views and she is also the host    of the popular podcast Where Should We Begin?    3 TEDtalks. See also: 


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Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541

See also: CommunicationCommunication StylesCriticism and contemptDefensiveness and Stonewalling