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Navigating Relationship Storms: Identifying and Tackling Communication Red Flags - Insights from John Gottman

Navigating Relationship Storms

Ever wondered what the warning signals or red flags are in a relationship? On social media, there's a lot of talk about relationship red flags and toxic traits to avoid. If you've ever questioned which pieces to believe and which ones to dismiss, this article is for you. Learn about Gottman therapy's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and its antidotes in this article!

If you've ever been in a relationship, there's a fair chance you've encountered the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Dr. John Gottman.

Who is Dr. John Gottman? Principles for Making Marriage Work

Dr. John Gottman

Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist with over 40 years of experience studying marriage and relationships, has developed an approach to couples therapy that utilizes principles of friendship, intimacy, respect, and affection to help couples build long-lasting, healthy relationships. Conducting research in the "Love Lab" at the University of Washington in Seattle, Dr. Gottman, along with his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, co-founded The Gottman Institute in Seattle. They offer workshops for couples and therapists based on their research findings. Dr. Gottman's most popular concept is The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from his best-selling book 'The Seven Principles to Making a Marriage Work.' Understanding these four horsemen will help you be aware of the dos and don'ts in a relationship.

The Four Horsemen and Their Origin

The Four Horsemen and Their Origin

According to Dr. John Gottman’s theory, four predictors can determine whether a couple will break up and/or separate. These predictors have been aptly named the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The principle behind this analogy is that, just like in the Bible when the Four Horsemen rode together to destroy the world, these four predictors can destroy your relationship.

In modern times, Dr. John Gottman uses this analogy in his research on relationships and marriages. Gottman found that if a couple frequently engages in these four behaviors, their marriage is much more likely to fail than a couple that avoids them. Read on to find out more about these four horsemen and the green flags/antidotes used to heal them.

⛳ The First Red Flag: Criticism


The first Horseman is Criticism – an attack on your partner’s character or personality rather than on their behavior. It 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 kind of communication implies that your partner is to blame for the issue at hand and is fundamentally flawed as a person – usually in an area they feel sensitive about.

If you've ever been told you're being too sensitive when expressing your hurt feelings, that is a form of criticism. Criticism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in relationships because it erodes the loving feelings needed for relationships to thrive and enhances the focus on the things that bother or annoy the partner. Criticism can take the form of sarcasm, name-calling, or belittling your partner.

💚 Antidote #1: Gentle Start-Up

Gentle Start-Up

Gentle start-up is an antidote to criticism and contempt. Starting sentences with "I" instead of "you" takes responsibility for your feelings and avoids placing blame on your partner. This allows more effective communication during conflicts. For example, instead of saying "you never listen," say "I feel like I am not being heard." If your partner is willing to listen and work on making these communication changes, you might start noticing their red flags slowly turning yellow and green. The biggest factor for a successful relationship is one’s willingness to listen, learn, and adjust. For those who have experienced trauma and ruptures in previous relationships, getting support from a professional through individual and couples therapy can be helpful.

Tips for Gentle Start-Up:

1. Describe your feelings using an “I” statement.

2. State your desire or need in positive terms.

3. Don't demand a response or overreact to your partner's response.

⛳ The Second Red Flag: Contempt


The second Horseman is Contempt – going beyond criticism by expressing disgust towards your partner, seeing them as inferior, and using hostile humor, mocking sarcasm, or name-calling. Contempt communicates disgust and disrespect, eroding your partner's sense of self-worth and emotional safety within the relationship.

According to Gottman, contempt is the number one predictor of divorce. This red flag can typically be identified in a relationship by looking for four signs: criticism, sarcasm, cynicism, and eye-rolling.

💚 Antidote #2: Appreciation


The antidote to contempt is Appreciation. Appreciation is one of the best predictors of whether a couple will stay together or break up. It is the opposite of contempt. Recognize appreciation when you say something nice, like "I really appreciate that you're putting your clothes away in the closet." Instead of creating false assumptions about appreciation, learn to cultivate it as a practice. For those who have experienced trauma and ruptures in previous relationships, getting support from a professional through individual and couples therapy can be beneficial.

Words of Appreciation:

- "You take care of my parents."

- "You listen to me when I need advice."

- "You make me feel safe."

- "You're a great cook."

- "You're dependable."

⛳ The Third Red Flag: Defensiveness


The third Horseman is Defensiveness – not about apologizing for things done wrong, but making excuses, blaming your partner for everything, and refusing to cooperate. It involves a lot of "yes, but" statements instead of "I'm sorry," deflecting responsibility or blame. Defensiveness feels like an attack to your partner and only serves to escalate the conflict.

Gottman describes defensiveness as a "way of protesting." It’s a common response to accusations and perceived criticism. When you’re defensive, you’re essentially saying, 'The problem isn’t me, it’s you.' Taking responsibility, the antidote to defensiveness, means examining your own actions carefully and making changes when wrong. It means looking at yourself first before looking at your partner and admitting when you need help, when you need to listen more, or when you need to be more empathetic.

💚 Antidote #3: Taking Responsibility

Taking Responsibility

Taking responsibility is not the same as saying “I am sorry” or “I shouldn’t have done that.” Saying “I am sorry” is a great thing to do if it comes from your heart. Taking responsibility means being able to explain why your action was wrong and how you can prevent it from happening again. By taking responsibility for part of the conflict, even with reasons and justifications, the responsibility-taking partner can prevent the conflict from escalating. For those who have experienced trauma and ruptures in previous relationships, getting support from a professional through individual and couples therapy can be helpful.

An Example:

- Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault that we’re going to be late. It’s your fault since you always get dressed at the last second.”

- Antidote: “I don’t like being late, but you’re right. We don’t always have to leave so early. I can be a little more flexible.”

⛳ The Fourth Red Flag: Stonewalling


The fourth Horseman is Stonewalling. Gottman defines stonewalling as when one partner withdraws from active listening and shuts down emotionally. This behavior can appear as boredom, detachment, or even anger. Stonewalling prevents effective listening, delaying resolutions and solutions. It signals deep trouble in a relationship and requires a lot of work for the couple to break this pattern.

Stonewalling can occur at any time during an argument, often when one person feels attacked by the other's words or actions. It is a way to avoid conflict and protect oneself from feeling overwhelmed or flooded by negative emotions.

💚 Antidote #4: Physiological Self-Soothing

Physiological Self-Soothing

The antidote to Stonewalling is physiological self-soothing, involving learning how to calm your own nervous system through breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and various calming activities. Self-regulation, the ability to calm yourself down, is an important life skill that can be learned with practice.

Physiological self-soothing allows you to calm yourself when feeling anxious, tense, or upset. It takes practice, and everyone’s self-soothing method is different. Some people prefer going for a walk, taking a shower, listening to music, or exercising. Physiological self-soothing can be done alone or with your partner and helps couples cope with disagreements without escalating or withdrawing. Acknowledging your partner's feelings and validating them during an argument can also help alleviate tension and prevent stonewalling behaviors.

5 Steps towards Physiological Self-Soothing:

1. Identify the emotion you’re feeling (e.g., anger, fear).

2. Identify where you feel it in your body (e.g., neck, shoulders).

3. Breathe into that area, allowing sensations to intensify without resistance.

4. Exhale and feel the sensations diminish.

5. Repeat steps 3–4 until you are calm.

We hope you find this article helpful for your current and future relationships. If you notice more red flags than attempts for antidotes, it might be a crucial time to reflect on your relationship. Couples therapy, as a preventative measure, can help acknowledge and work on bad habits early on, leading to higher levels of success and happiness. Ready to dive in or just curious about what therapy might entail? Take a look at our team and book a free 15-minute consultation with one of our therapists now!

Thank you for taking the time to read this article, for more information on Dr. Gottman’s work, click here:

Judy Lui

Judy Lui is the founder and clinical director of Your Story Counselling Services, A private practice clinic in Vaughan Ontario servicing individuals, couples, and families across the Greater Toronto Area. As a Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor, Judy is passionate about creating change and making mental health services more safe and accessible to the public. Judy believes in working collaboratively with others so that they can get back to themselves and their preferred way of life and living.

To learn more about the Your Story Counselling Team and the services we offer click here.

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