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  • Writer's pictureSavannah Ortiz

February and The Four Horsemen

For many people, February signifies flowers, chocolates, and all things lovey-dovey. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, it can be beneficial to reflect on the dynamics of relationships. There are many important factors to consider. A few of these questions include: whatdoes a healthy, or unhealthy, relationship look like? How do I know if my relationship is set up for success or failure? When it comes to relationships, each one is unique. Even though each relationship has unique dynamics, there are common aspects to help you determine if the relationship is falling into healthy or unhealthy territory. In this blog, I will utilize John Gottman’s evidence-based research to discuss the warning signs of a potentially declining partnership.

John Gottman is the leading psychologist in research-based approaches to relationships. As Gottman conducted his studies, he discovered the most common predictors of divorce/separation. According to Gottman, there are four main predictors of an unsuccessful marriage or partnership which he calls, “The Four Horsemen.” The elements of “The Four Horsemen” include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Criticism is verbally attacking a partner’s character or personality. The second element contempt is best described as attacking a partner’s sense of self with the intent to insult or even abuse. Defensiveness can look like reversing the blame or victimizing oneself when conflict arises. Lastly, stonewalling is the act of withdrawing to avoid conflict and typically gives off a sense ofdisapproval or distance. Any four of these “horsemen” can present themselves in times ofconflict or argument. When couples are unable to move past conflict or find a resolution, the conflict continues to be a barrier to successful communication and ultimately leads to the deterioration of the relationship. Gottman has determined that this inability to resolve conflict has the greatest negative impact on relationship dynamics. However, Gottman has provided alternative approaches and antidotes, to each of “The Four Horsemen” that support strong communication skills and hopefully an increased likelihood of relationship success.

The alternative approach that Gottman suggests for criticism is a gentle start up. A gentle start up can consist of using “I” statements to convey what the partner needs in a positive way. Contempt can be approached with a culture of appreciation. A culture of appreciation proposes reminding yourselfof your partner’s positive attributes and recognizing their positive actions. Taking responsibility is the alternative suggestion for defensiveness. This can include acknowledging and accepting your partner’s perspective as well as apologizing for any mistakes on your end. Finally,stonewalling is opposed with the idea of self-soothing. Gottman describes self-soothing astaking a break from the conflict to engage in something regulating or soothing. Practicing these four antidotes, increases the possibility of a successful relationship with improved approaches toconflict resolution. With Gottman’s principles in mind, couples can reflect on their dynamics and encourage a positive approach to conflict.


By: Savannah Ortiz

Master of Social Work Intern

Park University



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