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.

Improve your Communication – Minimize these Four Practices

Two of the foremost researchers on couples therapy are John and Julie Gottman. John Gottman, Ph.D. has spent over 30 years working with over 3000 couples and has data on aspects of relationships that most of us have never even thought about. They are so aware of what makes relationships work (and not work) they can predict with over 90% accuracy if a relationship will last after listening to just one conversation between a couple. They have also allowed me to help others communicate within their marriages in a way that has brought people closer when they felt they were drifting apart.

The most important element in their prediction is the presence of what the Gottman’s call, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a reference to the book of Revelation’s description of the Last Days. They believe unless we learn how to tame these horsemen, they will foretell the end of most any relationship.

Here they are:

Horseman 1 – Criticism: Likely you have a good idea of what criticism is. Describing a flaw in your partner’s personality or character is criticism. “You are selfish,” or “you are always so cold.” When a sentence starts with “you always” or “you never” it likely involves criticism. If you find you and your partner hang out here, don’t worry you are not alone. The good news is there is an antidote. The problem is the longer you hang out here the more likely you are to encounter the far more fatal horsemen that follow.

Horseman 2 – Contempt: According to Gottman this is the deadliest of the Four Horsemen, the one that best predicts divorce or the end of a relationship. Contempt is when you feel superior to your partner and take the moral high-ground. It is often indicated by sarcasm, cynicism, eye-rolling, and mockery. Not only is contempt extremely harmful to your relationship, but contemptuous couples are also more likely to contract infectious illnesses (colds, flu, etc.) than other people.

Horseman 3 – Defensiveness: Is a very understandable response and an attempt to protect oneself. Defensiveness doesn’t help resolve an issue, and more likely escalates it. Sometimes it takes the form of an “innocent victim.” Sometimes it looks like a counter-attack. It never takes responsibility.

Horseman 4 – Stonewalling: This is when a partner (statistically more likely a male) checks out. The partner remains in the room but gives no indication of being a part of the discussion or argument. Stonewalling is usually the last of the Four Horsemen to arrive. The other horsemen need to be running around in a relationship for a while before the feelings of being overwhelmed are such that stonewalling seems like the only legitimate way out.

John Gottman says the horsemen don’t arrive in any particular order. In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he points out, “criticism, contempt and defensiveness don’t always gallop into a home in strict order. They function more like a relay match – handing the baton off to each other over and over again if the couple can’t put a stop to it.”

If you recognize the presence of the Four Horsemen in your relationship, you certainly are not alone. The good news is that the sooner you spot it and learn how to tame the horses, the more fulfilling your relationship will be. The unfortunate news is, the longer they go untamed the more destruction they can wreak in your relationship.

Having completed level 2 training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy I am able to help you and your partner create a relationship that you find meaningful, rewarding, and to help bring back the feelings that had you come together in the first place. I would be happy to talk with you about this. You can contact me by text/phone (314-722-8255) or by the contact me section of this website.

You may also want to sign up for The Marriage Minute, a short email from The Gottman Institute. The book referenced is also listed on the recommended reading page of this website.

Stay tuned for the next blog about the antidotes to each of the Four Horsemen. Until then see if you can be aware of when they show up in your relationship. That would be a great start!