The Four Horsemen and the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy – A Four-Part Series

Most committed relationships are born of love. We spend years waiting to find the “right” person, and when we finally do, it seems for a time at least, love truly can conquer all. There is a science behind “falling in love”, based in chemistry and the brain’s release of chemicals and hormones that produce a sense of excitement and euphoria early on in relationships.

Eventually, however, the release of those hormones and chemicals ebbs and the sparkle of new love dims. Couples may find themselves replacing the wonderful reasons they choose their partner in the first place, with a list of expectations their partner just isn’t meeting. For many couples, positive emotional experiences such as acceptance, appreciation, respect, and effective communication dominate the relational landscape. But for some couples, emotional experiences such as disconnection, frustration, disappointment, and judgement create a canyon so deep, climbing to the top may seem impossible.

For four decades, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman and Dr. John Gottman have been researching couples and assisting them in navigating their way through tough relational terrane. The Gottman Method of couples therapy is based on the principles of trust and commitment and utilizes concepts such as creating shared meaning, building connection, making life dreams come true, and managing conflict to promote growth and acceptance in the relationship. The Gottman Method purposefully emphasizes the importance of “managing” conflict rather than “resolving” conflict because research has shown that natural personality differences prevent partners from agreeing most of the time. When I share this information with the couples I work with, they are often surprised to hear that the primary communication goal in couples therapy is learning how to disagree better, rather than learning how to disagree less. Relational conflict is normal, and when handled effectively, disagreement can actually promote growth and connection in the relationship.

The Gottman Method identifies four communication pitfalls, termed the Four Horsemen, that couples may find themselves falling into when managing conflict: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The Four Horsemen, when utilized frequently in a relationship, promote disconnection and hinder relational growth. In this post, I will focus on the first of the Four Horsemen, criticism, and will highlight the remaining three in future posts.

Criticism is the verbal attack on an individual’s personality or character and often incorporates shame, judgement, and blame. In other words, criticism attacks the core aspects of an individual. When the core aspects of one’s personality are under attack, it’s extremely difficult for that individual to resist the urge to defend themselves. No one likes feeling like something is wrong with who they are.

It’s not surprising then, that major blow ups and arguments often result from a small criticism. Here are some examples of criticism that an individual might utilize in a relationship:

• “You’re always late whenever we make plans. Why can’t you manage your time better?”

• “You never help around the house. You’re so lazy.”

• “You never tell me how you feel. It’s like you don’t even feel emotion.”

It’s important to remember that offering a criticism is very different than offering a complaint. A complaint is simply an expression of a need or want that is not being met in the relationship. Because partners often have very different core personality traits, their needs will be very different as well, and it’s important to express those needs in a healthy way. To express a need or a complaint effectively, the Gottman Method teaches the gentle start-up. A gentle start-up avoids using “you”, which instantly places blame, and instead uses “I” to effectively communicate the need or complaint. To formulate a gentle start-up, you may want to ask yourself these questions: What do I feel? and What do I need? By doing so, you instantly begin to move away from complaining about your partner and instead, move towards expressing your feelings and needs. Focusing on your own needs and wants, rather than placing blame, makes it much more likely that your partner will listen and respond to your need, rather than get defensive about his or her character.

Here are some examples of healthy communication regarding needs:

• I’m feeling frustrated that we are always late. Can we make a plan to leave on time?

• I’m feeling overwhelmed with the house work. Can we talk about ways to even out our responsibilities?

• I feel scared and alone when you don’t tell me how you feel. Can we find some ways to improve our communication?

Using a gentle-start up allows any conversation to be more effective. Owning our feelings and frustrations, rather than blaming our partner, promotes connection and growth in the relationship and prevents a discussion from turning into an argument. Most importantly, when couples recognize that their needs often look very different from their partner’s needs, they can more easily move into a place of support and validation and avoid becoming defensive, which in turn breeds disagreement.

If you are experiencing relational problems and would like to learn more about the Gottman Method, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced Orlando mental health counselors.

Lisitsa, E. (2013, April 26). The Four Horsemen: The Antidotes. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-the-antidotes/


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