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Relationship Communication Breakdown: Gottman Institute

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Relationship Communication Breakdown: John Gottman

The Four Horsemen

John Gottman reasearched couples and found these four communication patterns predict serious problems for a relationship. He calls these the four horseman of the apocalypse (referring to a metaphor in the Bible).

1. Criticism: Bringing up issues in ways that focus on your partner's character flaws rather than on behavior. It implies that the person is defective and involves blaming, name calling and labeling. At the heart of criticism is judging how your partner "should" be.

Antidote: Use a gentle start up such as: "Can I talk to you about... Is there a good time to chat about...." Focus on "I" messages and ask for a change in behavior in an attachment needs frame.

  • Criticism Example: "You're always looking at your phone during dinner and never pay attention to me. You are so rude."

  • Antidote Example: "I have noticed that when you are looking at your phone during dinner, I begin to feel excluded. Would you mind putting it away so we can focus on each other? I look forward to connecting with you during this time."

  • Steps: Identify the underlying attachment need you feel is not being met. Identify the behavior that is preventing it from being met. Use a gentle start up to ask for a change in behavior so that your attachment need is met.

2. Defensiveness: A response to criticism in which one defends oneself by denying that the complaint is valid, giving an excuse for the behaviour or counter-criticizing the spouse. It is a way of blaming your partner by saying: "I am not the problem, it's you!" It involves taking on a victim role.

Antidote: Humble yourself and learn to take responsibility for contributions to negative patterns.

  • Defensiveness Example: "I wasn't late on purpose. You are always picking on me. I can't do anything to please you."

  • Antidote Example: "You are right, I do have a habit of being late, I will try to do better."

3. Contempt: This involves putting your partner down, looking down on them and having an attitude of superiority. It is an attitude of "I am better than you."

Antidote: Express Appreciation, Thanks, fondness and admiration of good qualities. Create a list in advance to consult to counter mood-dependent memory. Learn to express your desires and needs instead of tearing down the other in an attitude of superiority.

  • Contempt Example: "You are reckless, irresponsible and out of control for spending so much. All you think about is yourself while I slave away for the family and do nothing but save."1le:

  • Antidote Example: "I feel frustrated about our finances and would like to have an agreement about a monthly budget and how much we save each month. Can we talk about this?

4. Stonewalling: Withdrawing from an interaction while still being physically present. It means cutting off all verbal and non-verbal communication. This leads to increased stress, inability to think clearly, be creative or solve problems.

Antidote: Learn to self-soothe instead of stonewalling using breathing or tension release techniques such as body scans. Tell your spouse you are elevated and need some time to calm down but will return to discuss the issue.

  • Stonewalling Example: Hearing a consistent criticism for the third time today has caused you to shut down and avoid talking about it.

  • Antidote Example: After being criticized engage in self-soothing and time out until you de-escalate. Return and explain you feel afraid/angry when criticized and ask to discuss the matter using mindful and appreciative communication. .

At some point everyone will fall into these patterns. But most people have a "favorite" way to disconnect with a loved one. What seems to be your go to pattern? How about your partners? Do you recognize your child's pattern as well?

You can start changing the patterns by using the antidotes suggested. It will be clunky at first. But as with everything, a little practice helps it become more natural.

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