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Communication and the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

One of the most common issues brought to couples therapy is the issue of communication.  This can present itself as a lack of communication all together, or simply as ineffective communication that causes a disconnect between two partners.  Specifically, Dr. John Gottman’s work with couples shows that there are four communication patterns that predict relationship success. Gottman termed these patterns ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, and the more present these communication styles are in a relationship, the less likely the relationship is to be successful.

Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling make up these four communication styles, with criticism perhaps being the most common. Although it may seem to be basic knowledge that criticism would have a negative impact on a relationship, the fact is that many people do not realize just how influential their words are. It is not necessarily WHAT the partner is saying, it is HOW they are saying it that will determine how their partner will receive that information, and ultimately how they will react.

Criticism often looks like ‘finger pointing’ with words. “YOU didn’t do the dishes” or “YOU never help me with the house work”. When we engage in this finger pointing with our words, our partner will likely receive it as a negative attack, and will therefore react defensively (another one of the Four Horsemen).

The most effective way to communicate ones needs in a relationship, and avoid criticism, is to use “I statements”. These statements focus on one’s own individual wants and needs, rather than what they perceive to be their partners shortcomings. By shifting the focus to our own wants and needs, we are allowing the partner to receive the information that we want to communicate without feeling attacked and becoming defensive. The message does not change, but the way it is communicated does.

“You never help me with the house work” provokes a very different reaction than “I would really appreciate some extra help around the house this week”.

The first step to improving communication in a relationship is to acknowledge if any of these four communication patterns are present. The work of Dr. John Gottman provides resolutions for all of these communication patterns, and finding a therapist trained in this type of therapy can be very beneficial to resolve communication errors, and improve relationship quality overall.



Kaitlyn Barnett, MACP is a Registered Provisional Psychologist with the College of Alberta Psychologists and specializes in the areas of relationship and family concerns, as well as many others. For more information on Kaitlyn and her work,  click here to link to her full bio page.