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February 3, 2023

Behaviors Hurting Your Relationships: Gottman’s 4 Horsemen

by Christina Keller, MS, LMFT

Understanding how our behaviors affect relationships is such a huge, crucial support to making sure relationships are effective, fruitful, and just good. Behavioral Health Therapist Christina Keller is sharing information about Gottman’s 4 Horsemen and walking us through different behaviors that are affecting our relationships.

Behaviors Hurting Your Relationships with Christina Keller, MS, LMFT

When our relationships with loved ones are not going well, it impacts our mood towards everything else. Drs. John and Julie Gottman have researched romantic relationships for over 40 years and found there are certain behaviors that determine if a couple is a Relationship Master or Disaster. They coined the top 4 behaviors that tend to be present in Relationship Disasters as the Four Horsemen.

Horsemen #1 – Criticism: Framing your complaint as a character flaw of your partner.

Example: “The dishes are not done. You’re so lazy.”

Horsemen #2 – Contempt: Engaging in a criticism that comes from a place of superiority.

Example: “The dishes are not done. You’re so lazy. I would never let the dishes stack up this high.”

We communicate with someone out of a desire to connect and share something with them. How we talk impacts our partner’s ability to receive our message. Criticism and Contempt share many similarities, which is why we can reduce them using similar techniques. Prioritize describing your own feelings and needs by using a Gentle Start Up. This follows the pattern of “I feel..[emotion]…about…[thing]…and I need…[a Positive Need].

A Positive Need is something you want your partner to add to their behaviors (e.g., wash the dishes). A Negative Need is something you want your partner to stop doing (e.g., nagging). There could be an endless number of things you don’t need from your partner. Being specific about what behaviors you want your partner to add reduces confusion and frustration.

Example: “I feel frustrated that the dishes aren’t done. I need your help to sort out a better way to stay on top of the dishes.”

Horsemen #3 – Defensiveness: Feeling criticized by your partner and attempting to voice a counterattack.

Example: “I was busy. I didn’t have time to do the dishes. You had time. Why didn’t you do them?”

When we feel our partner is criticizing us, we are less likely to listen to what they have to say. Instead, we try to protect ourselves and this takes the form of defensiveness. We counteract defensiveness by considering if there is any part (however small) of what your partner is saying that you might agree is accurate.

Example: “I didn’t do the dishes today like I said I would. I can see why that frustrated you.”

Horsemen #4 – Stonewalling: Emotionally withdrawing from a conversation.

Example: Crossing one’s arms or avoiding eye contact.

Stonewalling occurs when we feel overwhelmed and shut down in a conversation. We are no longer listening to our partner and will often engage in some non-verbal behaviors that show we have checked out. We move out of stonewalling by doing something that helps us feel calmer. These types of activities focus on reducing our heart rate helping us feel more relaxed.

Example: Taking a few deep breaths.

Shifting away from the 4 Horsemen is crucial in helping each partner feel heard and respected. If you would like some support with identifying and addressing the 4 Horsemen in your relationship, check out Avance Care’s Behavioral Health program and our therapists. You can visit our website to learn more, or call 919.237.1337 option 4 to speak with a Wellness Coordinator.

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