Communication - Part 4: What’s it all about and How to Enhance it

Learn to create a sense of “us against the problem” rather than a “me against you” mentality!

At this point, you might be ready to move on from communication and we’ll definitely get there, but one more round is due before switching topics. Feel free to look back on Parts 1, 2, and 3 if needed [INSERT HYPERLINKS], but for now we are going to wrap up in part 4. If you’ll recall, we covered The Four Horsemen according to the Gottman Institute, which describe criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling as they occur within relationships. Let’s now turn our attention to address how to repair these culprits as they appear in communication.

First up, criticism: the weaponized attack on our partner’s character. If this Horseman shows up, you can repair this behavior by describing your feelings. So, instead of saying “You’re lazy and you never help out!”, try to rephrase it with how you feel. For example, “It frustrates me when you don’t take out the trash because I thought we had agreed on who is responsible for what chores. I really need help around the house, please.” By utilizing the previously learned I-Statements, we effectively create what The Gottman Institute calls a softened start-up (Lisitsa, n.d.). These softened start-ups take away the corrosive blame, negativity, and judgment to promote positive expressions of needs.

Next is contempt: the priggish attack that is mean, disrespectful, full of mockery and ridicule. Those scoffing remarks with the hard eye rolls of disgust are detrimental to the point that this horseman is easily the greatest predictor of divorce. How then does one address this horseman to repair it? The easiest step is to utilize the aforementioned softened start-up so that you can effectively express your needs and desires. Then, allow yourself to focus on the friendship within the relationship itself by building mutual fondness & admiration with one another (Lisitsa, n.d.). Fondness is a description of affection and liking one another whereas admiration is a feeling of respect and warm regard for your partner. This may sound a lot like sharing what you enjoy about your partner and your appreciation for what they do and who they are as a person. Building mutual fondness & admiration helps to overcome the negative sentiment that pervades the relationship when contempt is present.

Don’t they say the best offense is a better defense? While that might apply to sports, it definitely isn’t helpful in the field of relationships. In relationships, think of defensiveness as the lineman ready to push back against criticisms with excuses or a goalie blocking it by diverting the blame back to the kicker. None of these images produce a picture of a loving, peaceful interaction. Might this be how it feels when these horsemen show up in your relationship? Rather than strap on those defensive pads, take a step back and allow yourself to accept responsibility for what’s happened. Identify your role in the conflict, acknowledge what went wrong, and how it affected your partner. Then you will be able to work together as a team to change the situation.

Do you find yourself shutting down and disengaging with your partner? If so, you’re likely experiencing stonewalling, which is a typical reaction of becoming unresponsive, especially when expressions of contempt are being hurled at you. This unhelpful coping skill is typically employed when we feel emotionally flooded and overwhelmed. A healthier way of coping in these situations is to intentionally disengage from the situation by requesting a time-out. This time away will allow you (and your partner) to self-soothe and reset to return to the conversation with a more productive and engaged presence. It’s important to remember to not ruminate but rather engage in activities that are calming during the time-out. 

The Four Horsemen are unhealthy and unhelpful for relationships, but they don’t have to be persistent. By applying the aforementioned skills to overcome criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, you can create a sense of “us against the problem” rather than a “me against you” mentality. And, if we’re being honest, it feels good when we know our person has our back while we have theirs. If you’re interested in learning how to improve these skills in your relationship, reach out to connect with one of our therapists in your area!

Lisitsa, E. (n.d.). How to fight smarter: Soften your start-up. In The Gottman Institute A Research-Based Approach To Relationships. Retrieved from

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