Antidotes to the Four Horsemen, or How to Repair & Strengthen your Partnership.

Previously I wrote about The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, four ways of communicating with your partner that don’t work. This blog is about the antidotes to the Four Horsemen. Once we become aware of these relationship killers we are then able to do something about it.

Click here to for a reminder of the Four Horsemen.

[Note: The Gottman’s are not consistent in their numbering of Horsemen #2 & #3. I too have swapped the two from the previous blog. The order is of no consequence, as in reality couples go back in forth between all of them.]


Horseman #1 (Criticism) Antidote – Gentle Start-up: According to Gottman the first three minutes of a conversation will determine how the conversation will go. A harsh start-up is usually the result of emotions that make one want to withdraw from the world. Instead of allowing these vulnerable emotions to be seen, we tend to cover them up with criticism and contempt. If we allow our partner to hear these softer, more vulnerable emotions the communication will be easier to hear and lead to more productive communication. There are 5 elements to the Gentle Start-up.

  1. Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You” to avoid blame. There is a difference between complaining and criticism. A complaint is about a specific event or behavior. Criticism is more global and attacks one’s character or personality. Rather than saying, “You’re so selfish…” start by saying how you feel, “I feel saddened…”
  2. Describe what is happening; don’t evaluate or judge. Here you want to focus on facts, not interpretation. Instead of saying, “You never help clean up,” say “The living room is a mess.”
  3. Talk clearly about WHAT YOU NEED IN POSITIVE TERMS. Talk about what you DO want, not what you DON’T want. If you had a magic wand what would you want? Something like, “I’d love it if you would pick up your things in the living room.”
  4. Be polite. Remember what we learned in Kindergarten. Use words such as “please” and “thank you.”
  5. Give appreciations. Acknowledging what your partner is doing right is the takeaway here. If you are thinking that nothing is going right, you can specifically ask for what you need while being appreciative of how your partner was in the past.

Summary: Gentle Start-up outline:

  • I Feel…
  • About What…
  • I Need…
  • Be Polite
  • Give Appreciations


Horseman #2 (Defensiveness) Antidote – Take Responsibility: By taking responsibility for even a small part of the problem you defuse tension and help to keep the problem from intensifying. Taking responsibility also helps your partner feel heard and understood.


Criticism: “I am really tired of having to ask you to clean up after yourself. You seem to be always forgetting. You are such a  slob.”

Defensive Counter-attack: “I don’t always forget, and do you remember just the other day I had to remind you about your mess and actually cleaned it up myself. You don’t always clean up after yourself either.”

Defensive Innocent Victim: “I didn’t leave my things around on purpose. I have a lot going on, and even when I do clean up you are never happy about it and often tell me I haven’t done a good enough job.”

Antidote: “You’re right, I’m sorry I didn’t clean up. I’ll try harder to notice and pick up after myself.”


Horseman #3 (Contempt) Antidote – Describe Your Own Feelings and NeedsThe implication when one partner is being contemptuous is that a desire, a need, or a want is not being fulfilled, and likely hasn’t been fulfilled for a while. The antidote is to describe your own feelings and needs by using “I” statements. (See ‘Gentle Start-Up’ for Criticism I Feel…/About What…/I Need…) Overall the idea is to share a spirit of appreciation with your partner. When you feel valued and appreciated you are able to access positive feelings for your partner and are less likely to act contemptuously when there is a difference of opinion.

Building a Culture of Appreciation Includes:

Expressing Appreciation: “I so love your welcoming hugs when I come home from work each day.”

Expressing Thanks: “Thank you for all you do for our family, we are all really fortunate to have you.”

Expressing Fondness & Admiration: “I’m so proud to have you as my partner. Last night during Game Night your enthusiasm and joy was infectious.”


Contempt:    “There you go again. Your reckless, irresponsible spending once again maxed out our credit card limit. You are out of control! All you think about is yourself, and don’t appreciate all the sacrifices I’ve made for our family.”

Antidote:      “I feel frustrated about our finances and the amount we spend versus how much we save each month. I would like to have an agreement about a monthly budget.”

Horseman #4 (Stonewalling) Antidote – Do Physiological Self-Soothing
The antidote to Stonewalling is to take a self-soothing break for at least 20 minutes. Instead of Stonewalling in reaction to your partner, you recognize the need to think clearly and to calm down. Tell your partner you will be back in 20-30 minutes to discuss the issue. Avoid negative self-talk during your break. Participate in something that is self-soothing, possibly going for a walk, or listening to music, there are also many relaxation techniques available online. When you do return to the discussion your partner is careful to talk in a gentle way so you can both engage in a constructive discussion.

There you have it. The Antidotes to the Four Horseman. I hope you find you are able to make use of them in your relationship. It is unrealistic to think the Four Horsemen will never show up in a relationship. But repairing and using the antidotes is critical in strong and happy relationships.

If you are interested in exploring how these ideas relate specifically to you and your partner I would be happy to discuss them further with you. Please use this link to contact me, or you may call 314-722-8255.

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