Problems in couple communication are often a sign of less satisfied couples. So to help identify difficulties in your couple communication, I want to share with you the research of couples therapist John Gottman. Relationship researcher John Gottman has observed couples in the lab for over 40 years, and can help you identify and overcome these negative communication patterns with his findings. In doing so, he has identified what he calls the four apocalyptic horsemen. These are four behaviors in conflict that contribute to intensifying the conflict.

These four apocalyptic horsemen consist of generalized criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Now I'll explain in more detail about each of the four horsemen with an example of what the couples therapist means by them. I´ll use the example of Anna and Laura. They are arguing about the fact that Anna often leaves her clothes lying around in their shared apartment.

The four apocalyptic horsemen in couple communication:

Apocalyptic Horseman 1: Criticism

Generalizing criticism is directed against the personality of the other person and generalizes from a situation to an unchangeable characteristic. Words like "never, always" are signals for this apocalyptic horseman!

Laura says to Anna, "You always leave your things everywhere! You're just terribly messy. You never think about me!"

Apocalyptic Horseman 2: Contempt

When you use this apocalyptic horseman, you react with contempt towards your partner. For example, you use sarcasm, insults, or eye rolling.

In the example, Anna says to Laura, "I can't believe you would say that to me. You're not normal either: you can't stand the slightest disorder. Your tidiness is pathological!"

Contempt Couple Fight

Apocalyptic Horseman 3: Defensiveness

When you apply this apocalyptic horseman, you react to your partner with a defensive attitude and take his statements like an attack. You are also convinced that the other person is to blame for the conflict.

Laura to Anna: "I've never had any problems with my order. It's only with you that this issue always comes up. I'm really tired of it, you should maybe seek some help! Because the problem is definitely you."

Apocalyptic Horseman 4: Stonewalling 

Stonewalling can show itself by ignoring, silencing, or running away from a partner. When a partner acts out of the apocalyptic horseman of stonewalling, they leave the scene because they don't want to endure the confrontation.
Anna: "This is really getting too much for me here. I'll be gone."
Stonewalling couple communication problem

There's good news: You can also work to dissolve these apocalyptic horsemen once you've identified them. This will help you overcome your problems in your couple communication. How can you do that? John Gottman has listed a few strategies for doing so that you can use to break negative interaction spirals.

Here's what you can do as a solution, according to relationship expert Gottman:

Step 1: Move from generalizing criticism to the "I" message.

Talk about your needs and feelings instead of criticizing your partner. By doing so, you'll turn an accusatory accusation into a need that your partner can support you with. It also makes your counterpart feel less attacked.

Laura to Anna: If your clothes are lying in the living room, it makes me angry. Because order is very important to me, and it's also important to me that you respect that.

Step 2: From contempt to appreciation and respect

This behavior means that instead of devaluation and sarcasm, you understand your partner's situation and respectfully ask for something. For example, you can express understanding of the other person's situation, but still attach your request. Cultivating a culture of appreciation in the relationship means regularly communicating gratitude, affection, positive emotions, and compliments and attentions as part of the relationship.

Laura: I can understand that tidiness is not that important to you and that you are on the road a lot right now, so you haven't had time to tidy up yet. Still, I'd like to ask you to tidy up this weekend.

apprectiation in couples communication

Step 3: From defensiveness to responsibility

It's important to acknowledge your own part in conflicts. So instead of completely blocking out responsibility, acknowledge your part and your behavior as also contributing to the conflict. This makes it easier to find a compromise solution that is good for both of you.

Anna to Laura: I'm sorry I left my things lying around. It's true that I've been really messy lately.

Step 4: Instead of stonewalling self-regulation

If you notice that a conflict is escalating, it's a good idea to take a time-out. This will help both of you see the situation more clearly, and not act out of strong emotions with little willingness to compromise. It is recommended that you take at least 20 minutes where you do the things that are good for you, such as reading or listening to music. After that, you can talk about the conflict again.

Anna: I find that I need some time to myself to calm down. When I'm ready to talk about it, I'll come back to the living room, in 30 minutes at the latest.

In this article, you learned more about what negative communication patterns are in couple communication and how to resolve them. It's not easy to change ingrained communication patterns, but it is possible! Awareness is always the first step to change.

Would you like help working on your couple communication? Then feel free to contact me.


Lisitsa, E. (n. d.) The Four Horsemen: The Antidotes. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved 27. June 2022, from

Lisitsa, E. (n. d.) The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved 06. June 2022, from

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