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Toxic communication behaviours that destroy relationships - Meet the Four Horsemen

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

As a relationship counsellor, I’d say the number one reason couples coming to counselling say they want help with is communication. As the old saying goes communication is key, but if you have never been taught how to use that key you’ll never be able to open the door to healthy communication.

In Gottman Therapy, the way we describe negative communication behaviours as the Four Horseman (like in the apocalypse) - a term coined by therapists, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman and Dr. John Gottman. ( They are: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.

These behaviours if left untreated will almost certainly spell the end of your relationship. Being able to identify the Four Horsemen being present in in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them and replacing them with healthy, productive communication patterns. Thankfully these Gottman’s have provided us with some antidotes to the horsemen which went implemented can help improve and strengthen your communication in your relationship.


Criticism usually begins with statements like, “Why did you…’ or ‘You always…” These statements immediately put your partner on the back foot and set the general tone of the conversation in a place of attack/defend.

The antidote for this is referred to a Gentle Start Up which involves focusing on “I” statements. This begins with “I feel angry”, followed by the why, “because the dishwasher is not emptied”, followed by the need, “I find it so helpful when this is already done.”


Defensiveness involves not taking responsibility for you own actions and deflecting this to the partner. For example, “The dishwasher has not been emptied yet,” is responded to with “You did not empty it last night”. The antidote for this is taking responsibility. For example, “I did not do that; I will try to remember next time.”


Contempt involves making statements from a position of feeling better than or superior to your partner. For example, “You are so thoughtless.” The antidote is to acknowledge your feelings and describe what you need. For example, “I feel hurt I was not included in the conversation at dinner, I need to be given the chance to share my thoughts.” To help you do so, think about your partner’s positive characteristics.


Stonewalling is when you withdraw emotionally from your partner. For example, ignoring them during a conversation. The antidote for this is to practice self-soothing to manage difficult emotions that contribute to stonewalling. One example of a self-soothing skill is to practice deep breathing to help the breath move from shallow and rapid to deep and regular.

This helps to calm the body and brain which allows you to be able to focus, listen and productively problem solve the issue. All relationships move through difficult and positive periods of time and communication skills are essential throughout the high and low periods.

Building ways to communicate using Gentle Start Up, Taking Responsibility, Describing Your Own Feelings and Needs and Self-Soothing will benefit both and your partner and help improve the quality of your communication.

If you and your partner would like to explore ways to build and strengthen communication in your relationship, please feel free to get in touch. I offer a free 15-minute phone consultation, or if you would like to make an appointment for either a face to face or online counselling session whichever is convenient.

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