Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Principled Commitment: An Adult Program on Building Strong Relationships

Leader Resource 3: Gottman and the Four Horsemen

How do we apply the idea of humility to the ways we communicate as couples? Do we need to be meek and noncommittal? Do we always need to communicate in "I statements"?

John Gottman, Ph.D., has been researching male-female marriages for over thirty years and same-sex committed relationships for over twelve years. His research suggests that happy, healthy couples use a wide variety of communication styles when they are in conflict. Some happy couples fight with each other frequently, some happy couples do everything they can to avoid a fight, and other happy couples talk things through without ever showing signs of anger. Couples need to agree on a style of conflict management and use it well when conflicts arise. "I statements" can work well, as can other styles — as long as the couple finds a style that works for both partners. Challenges arise when one partner consistently wants to "get it all out on the table" and the other consistently wants to "sweep it all under the rug."

Gottman's research has concluded that it's not the presence of certain techniques of dialogue, but rather the absence of certain destructive behaviors, that helps relationships survive for the long term. These four destructive behaviors are defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. Gottman calls these the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" because they can herald the end, or the decline, of a relationship.


Criticism is defined by Gottman as a global comment about your partner's personality or character. It is different from a complaint. A complaint might be, "You told me you understood the directions to Bill's house — I'm disappointed that we're lost." An example of a criticism in the same situation might be, "How could you have missed the name of the exit? You are such a poor listener!"


Contempt includes name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor, as well as cynicism and sarcasm directed at one's partner. Messages of contempt are spoken from a position of superiority, which indicates a hierarchical relationship dynamic that is especially problematic.


Gottman defines defensiveness as "saying, in effect, 'The problem isn't me, it's you.'" Defensiveness often escalates conflicts, as partners bring up past hurts and grievances as a way of defending themselves against perceived criticism.


Stonewalling is a way of disengaging from a conflict. A partner who is stonewalling cuts off the kind of verbal and nonverbal communication that would express his/her emotions. She/he becomes unresponsive and uncommunicative.