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Identifying Relationship Red Flags: A Guide to the Four Horsemen of Communication

Relationship Red Flags

Ever wondered what warning signs or red flags to watch for in a relationship? With social media buzzing about these red flags and toxic traits to avoid, it can be challenging to discern which ones hold merit. This article aims to help you navigate the world of relationship red flags by delving into Dr. John Gottman's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and their antidotes.

This article is meant to give you an overview of key concepts around Gottman relational therapy. Want to learn more or get more in-depth with how these concepts can help your relationship? Take a look at our team of couples and relational therapists and book a free no obligation 15 minute consultation today!


If you've ever popped into the relationship section of any book store, you've likely crossed paths with Dr. John Gottman's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But who is Dr. John Gottman?

About Dr. John Gottman:

About Dr. John Gottman

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Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist with over 40 years of experience in studying marriage and relationships, has developed a couples therapy approach based on principles of friendship, intimacy, respect, and affection. He conducts his research at the "Love Lab" at the University of Washington in Seattle and co-founded The Gottman Institute with his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman. One of his most renowned concepts is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, featured in his bestselling book, 'The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.' Understanding these Four Horsemen can significantly enhance your awareness of what to do and avoid in a relationship.

The Four Horsemen and Their Origin:

The Four Horsemen and Their Origin

Based off of Dr. John Gottman's research and modeled after the biblical four horsemen reference, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are four predictive behaviors that can determine the fate of a relationship. Just as the Four Horsemen rode together to destroy the world in the Bible, these behaviours can destroy your relationship. Dr. John Gottman uses this analogy in his modern research on relationships and marriages. If a couple frequently engages in these four behaviors, their relationship is at a higher risk of failing. In couples therapy, clinicians utilize these four main categories to better understand the miscommunication patterns of conflict and help couples identity and rectify such behaviours. Want to see if Gottman couples therapy could be for you? Take a look at our team of couples and relational therapists and book a free no obligation 15 minute consultation today!

The First Relationship Red Flag: Criticism

The First Red Flag: Criticism

The first Horseman, Criticism, attacks your partner's character or personality rather than their behavior. Criticism is not a complaint but an accusation, often delivered with contempt through sarcasm, mocking, or cynicism. Phrases like "you always" or "you never" are examples of criticism. This communication style not only blames your partner for the issue but also implies they are fundamentally flawed. This erodes the loving feelings necessary for a thriving relationship and emphasizes the partner's annoyances. Criticism can take various forms, such as sarcasm, name-calling, or belittling.

Antidote #1: Gentle Start-Up

Gentle Start-Up

An antidote to criticism and contempt is the Gentle Start-Up. By beginning sentences with "I" instead of "you," you take responsibility for your feelings and avoid placing blame on your partner. For example, instead of saying, "You never listen," you can say, "I feel like I am not being heard." Cultivating gentle start-up in your communication can help turn those red flags into yellow and green.

When feelings have been hurt by criticism for a long time, the process of shifting to a gentle start up can be met with a lot of resistance, often times our psychological minds can deem this change as unsafe and we can get stuck in this behavior even if we know better. You deserve to have help and support when you are feeling stuck. Take a look at our team of couples and relational therapists and book a free no obligation 15 minute consultation today!

The Second Relationship Red Flag: Contempt

The Second Red Flag: Contempt

Contempt, the second Horseman, goes beyond criticism and expresses disgust toward your partner, seeing them as inferior. It may involve hostile humor, mocking sarcasm, or name-calling. Contempt conveys disgust and disrespect, damaging your partner's sense of self-worth and emotional safety.

Antidote #2: Appreciation

To counteract contempt, practice Appreciation. It's one of the best predictors of a successful relationship. Appreciation means saying positive things, like "I really appreciate that you're putting your clothes away in the closet," rather than saying, "You should put your clothes away in the closet." Avoiding criticism fosters gratitude and love in your relationship. In couples therapy, clinicians help couples find opportunities to grow appreciation and admiration in daily lives. Making it easier to make this practice routine.

The Third Relationship Red Flag: Defensiveness

The Third Red Flag: Defensiveness

The third Horseman, Defensiveness, involves making excuses, blaming your partner, and refusing cooperation. It's an attempt to deflect responsibility or blame, making resolution difficult and escalating conflicts.

Antidote #3: Taking Responsibility

To address defensiveness, take responsibility for your actions and examine them carefully. Admit when you need help, need to listen more, or need to be more empathetic. It's about acknowledging your part in the conflict rather than simply saying, "I'm sorry." We may have our own previous traumatic experiences growing up or in previous relationships that make a simple “I’m sorry” impossible. Within individual and couples therapy your therapist can help you uncover and process these past traumas, making it easier and psychologically safer for you to practice the vulnerable act of saying sorry.

The Fourth Red Flag: Stonewalling

The Fourth Relationship Red Flag: Stonewalling

Stonewalling is when a partner withdraws from active listening and emotionally shuts down, appearing disinterested or even angry. This can delay conflict resolution as it prevents effective communication.

Antidote #4: Physiological Self-Soothing

To combat stonewalling, learn to calm your own nervous system through breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and calming activities. Self-regulation is a vital skill that can be learned. It can help both partners regain composure and work through conflicts. Acknowledging your partner's feelings during an argument and validating them can also prevent stonewalling behaviors. There can be many barriers and traumas preventing us from properly self-soothing. A psychotherapist can help guide you in discovering what is causing that block so that you can fully and freely have the space to take back control of your psychological and physiological wel being.

Understanding and addressing these Four Horsemen can significantly improve your relationship. If you notice more red flags than antidotes, it might be time to reflect on your relationship. Couples therapy can help you develop the skills needed to build a healthier, more loving partnership, contact us today for a free 15-minute no obligation consultation.


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At Your Story Counselling, our team of expert therapists are here to help. We specialize in helping folks recover from trauma and build the tools to move forward in life.

We understand that seeking help can be scary, but we believe that everyone deserves a chance at a happy and healthy future.

Our therapists are trained to help couples communicate effectively, understand each other's needs, and work towards a shared understanding of what their relationship means to them, we're here to help.

So if you're ready to take the first step towards a stronger, healthier relationship with yourself, reach out to us for help today. Remember, it's never too late to seek help, and you and your partner deserve the best possible chance at happiness.


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