Communication - Part 3: What’s it all about and How to Enhance it

Criticism and contempt arise in communication. It is important to look at communication patterns to find where we can improve in expressing ourselves to others.

Thus far we’ve covered the components of communication and how we can enhance our listening skills (click here for a refresher!) [INSERT HYPERLINK], as well as, how we can enhance our speaker skills and what this looks like if we are not clearly expressing ourselves or creating room for others (want a refresher on that one? Click here!)[INSERT HYPERLINK]. Hopefully by now you are feeling more in-the-know on communication and have even tried applying some of what we’ve discussed. Let’s take it a step further… Odds are, you have at least heard of the The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—they’re referenced in the New Testament as the bearers of the end times. Have you ever heard of John Gottman and the Gottman Institute’s version of The Four Horsemen though? They use the imagery of the Four Horseman to describe styles of communication that not only impede relationships, but can have highly damaging effects. Based on Gottman’s research, they can accurately predict the end of a relationship based on these “Four Horsemen” existing within relational communication. Let’s dive into those impediments to learn more about what they look like and how they negatively impact relationships.

The Four Horsemen, as described by The Gottman Institute, are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling (Lisitsa, n.d). When we engage in criticisms of our partner, we are essentially using our words as weapons to attack their character. Criticism sounds like “You never take out the trash! You’re lazy and you don’t care about helping around the house!” These remarks set out to tear apart whereas what is needed, and is most helpful, is to communicate a complaint or critique about an issue that expresses a need. According to Lisitsa (n.d.), while criticism is normal and your relationship is not doomed if present, what happens is that “when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen to follow.”

Contempt is the second horseman —and also the biggest predictor of divorce. When we approach our partner in a contemptuous way, we are assuming a position of superiority over them be it morally, ethically, or characterologically (Lisitsa, n.d.). Our verbal and paraverbal communication is disrespectful, mocking, full of ridicule and name calling and the nonverbal communication can be eye-rolling, scoffing, and mimicking our partner. Perhaps you’ve said aloud something like “you’re such an idiot” while rolling your eyes at your partner. Oftentimes, this leaves our partner feeling despicable and unworthy, which is the precise goal of contempt. This form of communication is fueled by long held negative sentiments of our partner and sets out to attack their sense of self because our partner thinks they disgust us and we view them as beneath us.

Clearly, criticism and contempt are the two horsemen whose goals are to attack partners. The next two horsemen are what happens when criticism and contempt arise in communication. Defensiveness, the third horseman, is an act of self-preservation that stems from a need to avoid an attack or challenge. It comes across as excuses, acting like the victim within the situation, and goes so far as to divert blame to the one expressing criticism. The last horseman is stonewalling where one member of the conversation actively shuts down and ignores the other person. This is a typical response to contempt that is being expressed by the other person and can produce what is referred to as “flooding” in our partner (Lisitsa, n.d.).

Take a moment to think back on your interactions within your relationship. Can you identify the presence of any of the four horsemen (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling)? Are all four present in your interactions? If any or all are present, be mindful of when they occur and try to refrain from engaging in these behaviors. Next time, we’ll discuss what it looks like to make repairs when these communication styles appear in your interactions with your partner. If you want to get a head start on identifying and/or taming the four horsemen in your relationship, reach out to one of our therapists in your area today!

Lisitsa, E. (n.d.). The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. In The Gottman Institute A Research-Based Approach To Relationships. Retrieved from 

The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, & Stonewalling

Lisitsa, E. (n.d.). The Four Horsemen: Criticism. In The Gottman Institute A Research-Based Approach To Relationships. Retrieved from 

The Four Horsemen: Criticism

Lisitsa, E. (n.d.). The Four Horsemen: Contempt. In The Gottman Institute A Research-Based Approach To Relationships. Retrieved from 

The Four Horsemen: Contempt | The Gottman Institute