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Unhelpful Behaviour in Relationships, Gottman Four Horsemen

Posted By Fiona Gray  
15:00 PM

Identifying negative and lethal methods of communication in a relationship can enable couples to avoid conflict, frustration and distance. Dr John Gottman and Dr Julie Schwartz Gottman provide an evidence-based approach that helps couples increase understanding, trust and positivity.

Dr John Gottman's research identified the four key behaviours that lead to relationship dissolution; Criticism, Defensiveness Contempt, and Stonewalling. He called them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.


Criticism involves bringing up an issue in a way that focuses on your partner's character or personality flaws rather than on what

you would like them to do differently. Criticism implies something is wrong with your partner; that he/she/they is defective.

This may include blame, name-calling and general character assassination.


Defensiveness is an attempt to protect yourself, to defend your innocence, to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are criticised. Research shows that defensiveness rarely has the desired effect of improving the situation. This is because defensiveness is a way of blaming your partner. You are saying "The problem isn't me it's you". Defensiveness escalates the conflict, which is why it's so destructive. 


To be contemptuous is to put your partner down or to use abusive language. It happens when you act and feel superior. It's putting oneself on a higher plane with an attitude of "I'm better/smarter etc than you"

Contempt stems from a negative habit of mind, which you scan the environment looking for your partner's mistakes. Sarcasm, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery- name-calling, bullying, emotional control, physical harm and any other form of abuse are forms of contempt.


Stonewalling occurs when you withdraw from the interaction while staying physically present. Essentially, this means not giving cues you are listening or paying attention. For instance, avoiding eye contact, and crossing your arms. The more you are criticised, the more you turn away. The more you turn away (give cues to the speaker that you are not paying attention) the more your partner attacks.