Dealing a Blow to Toxic Communication: Countering the Four Horsemen

Toxic forms of communication are poisonous to relationships. Relationships characterized by criticism, contempt, defensiveness and/or stonewalling create an environment that doesn’t allow for happiness or the successful resolution of conflict – a normal part of any relationship. This is likely a key component as to why so many couples look for counseling nowadays. John Gottman has defined the four communication styles toxic to long-term relationships, or what he terms the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. This article explores ways of addressing these negative patterns. According to Gottman, for each one of the Four Horsemen there is an effective “antidote” that counters its’ negative effects. Let’s take a look at what these are.

Whereas criticism refers to a style of communication that is verbally attacking of your partner at the level of his personality or character, Gottman proposes that the antidote to this is to voice your complaints without blaming. So instead of denigrating your partner’s character in a conflict situation, feel free to express your concerns without blaming your partner. For instance, if you feel your partner is not helping sufficiently around the house saying something like “I’m feeling quite overwhelmed by household responsibilities at the moment and I would really appreciate more help” communicates your need and focuses on you, as opposed to targeting your partner. By expressing yourself using “I” statements and making clear what you want from your partner, the possibility for constructive resolution of conflict is greatly increased. This creates a very different atmosphere in contrast to a statement such as “you never help around the house!”

Gottman proposes the building of a culture where there is mutual appreciation as an antidote to contempt – an attacking communication style aimed at undermining your partner’s sense of self through verbal insult or abuse. Instead of negating and  belittling your partner from a position of superiority, adopt an approach to him/her that focuses on mutuality and appreciation. Notice your partnership and express appreciation for the good qualities your partner brings to the relationship. This requires making the active choice to see your partner with a “good eye” as opposed to judgmentally sitting back from a superior vantage point and attacking him/her.

The antidote to defensiveness – viewing yourself as the victim of a perceived attack and squarely placing blame on your partner’s shoulders – is viewed as the capacity to accept responsibility. Instead of projecting blame onto your partner and taking no part in the issues that generate conflict in your marriage, start to notice your share in generating problems in the relationship. Acknowledging your role will allow for a de-escalation of conflict and open up the possibility for healthy resolution of problems. So for example, instead of responding to a request to help around the house by saying: “Of course I couldn’t help when I got home this evening. Do you know how hard I work; do you know how many hours I have to put in just to put bread on the table? What were you doing all day?”, a more constructive response might have been “I’m really sorry I haven’t helped enough. I feel exhausted from a long day at work. I am happy to help tomorrow morning.”

Stonewalling – a withdrawal from the relationship – is countered by nurturing the capacity for self-soothing. Instead of getting to a point where you feel overwhelmed by negative emotions and therefore block yourself off from further interaction, rather cut the process short before it gets to this point. Communicate to your partner that you are feeling overwhelmed and can’t interact constructively, and take the time and space you need to calm yourself down both physically and emotionally. Do something soothing and calming that helps you to become more centered and relaxed. You can then choose to re-enter the relationship space from a more contained perspective, which can only bode well for a more constructive resolution of conflict.

The essence of these antidotes and the secret to long-term relationship success lies in in the way we choose to communicate with our intimate partner. The health of our long-term, intimate relationship is essential to our happiness and our lifetime success.  So choose to treat the partner YOU chose with kindness, love and respect and notice how your relationship blossoms and your happiness grows.

Author Bio:

Stacey Leibowitz-Levy, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. She is the editor for

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