The Four Communication Red Flags and How to Address Them. - John Gottman
Updated: Sep 7
Relationship Advice from a Psychotherapist using Gottman Relational Theory - The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Ever wonder what are the warning signals or red flags to look out for in a relationship? On social media, there is a lot of talk about relationship red flags and toxic traits to avoid. If you have 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 is a fair chance you've encountered the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Dr. John Gottman….
Who is Dr. John Gottman?
Dr. John Gottman is a psychologist who has been studying marriage and relationships for over 40 years. Dr. Gottman’s work has led to the development of an approach to couples therapy that uses principles of friendship, intimacy, respect and affection to help couples build long-lasting, healthy relationships. He conducts research on love and relationships in the “Love Lab” at the University of Washington in Seattle. With his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, he co-founded The Gottman Institute in Seattle where they offer workshops for couples & therapists based on their research findings. Dr. Gottman’s most popular and long-standing concept is The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from his best seller book ‘The Seven Principles to Making a Marriage Work”. Understanding these four horsemen will help you better be aware of the dos and don’ts in a relationship.
The Four Horsemen and Its Origin
According to Dr. John Gottman’s theory, there are four predictors that can determine whether or not a couple will get break up and/or separate. These four predictors have been aptly named 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 will 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 Horsemen, Criticism – this is an attack on your partner’s character or personality rather than on their behaviour. It is not a complaint but an accusation and it is often delivered with contempt - sarcasm, mocking or cynicism. The dreaded "you always..." or “you never...” are examples of criticism. The problems with this kind of communication are twofold: Not only does it imply that your partner is to blame for the issue at hand, but it also implies that they are fundamentally flawed as a person – usually in an area that they feel particularly sensitive about.
If you have ever been told you are being too sensitive when expressing how to hurt you where by your partner, that is a form of criticism. criticism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in relationships because it erodes the loving feelings we need in order for relationships to thrive and enhances the focus on the things that bother or annoy the partner instead. Criticism can take the form of sarcasm, name-calling or belittling your partner. Criticism can look like an attack on a partner's character or personality rather than specific behavior.
💚 Antidote #1: Gentle Start-Up
Gentle start-up is an antidote to criticism and contempt. When we start our sentences with "I" instead of "you," we take responsibility for our feelings and avoid placing blame on our partner. This allows us to communicate more effectively during conflicts. Here's how it works: Instead of saying "you never listen," say "I feel like I am not being heard." Instead of saying "You always interrupt me," say "I feel frustrated when I do not get to finish my sentences."
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. No one is perfect in a relationship, the biggest factor for a successful relationship is one’s willingness to listen, learn and adjust. You are not alone in this journey, for many folks that maybe have experienced trauma and ruptures in their previous relationships, getting support from a professional may be helpful. Individual and Couples therapy are both great ways to navigate and work on these skills. Take a look at our team and/or book a free 15 minute consultation with one of our therapists now!
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
Horsemen number two, Contempt – this goes beyond criticism in that the speaker expresses disgust towards their partner and sees them as inferior to themselves or others. They may use hostile humor, mocking sarcasm, or name-calling in order to get their point across. Contempt communicates disgust and disrespect, which are toxic to a relationship as they erode 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. Contempt is one of the most dangerous behaviors because it conveys disgust. It's virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you're disgusted with them.
💚 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. Appreciation is the opposite of contempt. You can recognize this quality of appreciation because when you say something nice, like "I really appreciate that you're putting your clothes away in the closet," instead of saying "I think you should put your clothes away in the closet," you don't get criticized back. Instead, there's a lot of gratitude and love coming back at you.
Often people create false assumptions about appreciation and tend to underutilize it. They might think that their partners know how much they care about them without having to hear it out loud. Or maybe they feel like their partners should just know what makes them feel loved without having to spell it out for them. Learning to cultivate appreciation can take practice and hard work and you are not alone in this journey. For many folks that maybe have experienced trauma and ruptures in their previous relationships, getting support from a professional may be helpful in honing this skill. Individual and Couples therapy are both great ways to navigate and work on these skills. Take a look at our team and/or book a free 15 minute consultation with one of our therapists now!
Some 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."
⛳ The Third Red Flag: Defensiveness
The third Horsemen is Defensiveness. Defensiveness isn't about apologizing for things you've done wrong. It's about making excuses for yourself, blaming your partner for everything that goes wrong, and refusing to cooperate — essentially using a lot of "yes, but" statements instead of "I'm sorry". Defensiveness is a way of deflecting responsibility or blame. As soon as one partner accuses the other of something, most people become defensive, because no one wants to be wrong. Defensiveness is an attempt to protect yourself by denying responsibility, making excuses or counterattacking. However, to your partner, defensiveness feels like an attack 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.' By trying to escape responsibility for your actions or emotions, you deny the chance for you and your partner and work collaboratively in resolving your issues
💚 Antidote #3: Taking Responsibility
The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility. This means that you examine your own actions carefully, and make changes when you are wrong. It means you look at yourself first before looking at your partner. It means that you admit when you need help, when you need to listen more, or when you need to be more empathetic.
But 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 actually comes from your heart. But if it doesn’t? If it’s just a way of shutting someone up? You will be able to tell the difference between sincerity and insincerity in “I am sorry,” because the person who is truly taking responsibility will be able to say why their action was wrong, and how they can make sure it never happens again. By taking responsibility for part of the conflict, even if they do have their own reasons and justifications for why they did what they did, the responsibility-taking partner is able to prevent the conflict from escalating. From here, the couple can work towards a compromise and repair. For many folks that maybe have experienced trauma and ruptures in their previous relationships, getting support from a professional may be helpful in honing this skill. Individual and Couples therapy are both great ways to navigate and work on these skills. Take a look at our team and/or book a free 15 minute consultation with one of our therapists now!
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
John Gottman’s last Horsemen is Stonewalling. Gottman defines stonewalling as when one partner withdraws from active listening and shuts down emotionally. When people do this they can appear bored in the conversation, detached, or even angry. When people withdraw this way they cannot listen effectively to statements made by their partners which delay resolutions and solutions. They may have their arms crossed, or have turned away from their partner. This is a sign of deep trouble in a relationship. It takes a lot of work for the couple to get out of this pattern. If you experience any of these four horsemen in your relationship, consider getting help from a couples counselor, therapist, or coach.
Stonewalling is a common way to avoid the conflict that the couple may be experiencing and is utilized as a way to protect oneself from feeling overwhelmed or flooded by negative emotions.
Stonewalling can happen at any time during an argument but more often occurs when one person feels attacked by the other person's words or actions. This act by one person could lead to both partners withdrawing from each. If one partner is being critical, defensive, or displaying contempt, the other person may stonewall as a way to protect themselves from the conflict.
💚 Antidote #4: Physiological Self-Soothing
The antidote to Stonewalling is physiological self-soothing, which involves learning how to calm your own nervous system through breathing exercises, relaxation techniques and various calming activities. Gottman says that we must learn to take care of ourselves and calm down before we can calm our partners down. Self-regulation, or the ability to calm yourself down, is an important life skill that can be learned with practice.
Self-Soothing is a skill that allows you to calm yourself down when you are feeling anxious, tense or upset. It’s easy to think we’d automatically know this skill, but it’s not so. Self-soothing takes practice and everyone’s self-soothing recipe is different. Some people like to go for a walk, take a shower, listen to music, or exercise. The key is that it has to work specifically for you and you are doing something nice for yourself to calm your body down. Physiological self-soothing can be done alone or with your partner. Physiological self-soothing helps couples cope with disagreements without escalating or withdrawing.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary for both partners to be calm for someone to start calming down. In fact, if one partner can calm themselves down, even if the other partner doesn’t reciprocate immediately, they can still regain regulation together. This is called “one-person regulation” because it only takes one person to begin regulating in order for both partners to begin regulating. Gottman says that acknowledging your partner's feelings and validating them during an argument can also help alleviate tension and prevent flooding which ultimately leads to stonewalling behaviors.
For many folks that have experienced trauma and ruptures in their previous relationships, self-soothing can be immensely difficult. You are not alone and getting support from a professional may be helpful in honing this skill. Individual and Couples therapy are both great ways to navigate and work on these skills. Take a look at our team and/or book a free 15 minute consultation with one of our therapists now!
A big part of what we do in couples therapy is to teach couples how to regulate their emotions during conflict. In therapy, we call this “physiological self-soothing”. Physiological self-soothing is a skill that allows each partner to individually calm down and manage his or her own negative emotions. When partners can do this, they can come back together and address conflict in a positive way.
The 5 steps towards physiological self-soothing
Identify the emotion you’re feeling (e.g., anger, fear)
Where do you feel it in your body (e.g., neck, shoulders)
Breathe into that area and allow the sensations to grow in intensity without fighting them
Exhale and feel the sensations diminish
Repeat steps 3–4 until you are calm
We hope you found this article helpful to you and your current and/or future relationships. If you find yourself asking or noticing more red flags than attempts for antidotes, it might be an important time to carefully reflect and contemplate your relationship with your partner. Oftentimes, couples wait until things are in disrepair before trying out couples therapy, taking preventative measures and acknowledging/working on bad habits early on will lead to much higher levels of success and happiness. Ready to dive in? Or just curious as to what your therapy might entail? Take a look at our team and/or 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:
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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.
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