• Miranda L. Galbreath, MA, MA, LPC

Are you sabotaging your relationship?

Lately I have been immersed in a new adventure: Learning about couples therapy! I decided to start with the Gottman Method and branch out from there. I recently completed the Gottman Level 1 Training, and am currently immersed in Level 2.

One of the core components of the Gottman Method, based on decades of research, is the concept of the Four Horsemen. These are four ways of interacting within a relationship that research indicates are the best predictors that a couple is headed for a separation. Here's a brief overview of the Four Horsemen....see if any of these sound familiar in your relationship:


When there is criticism in your relationship, partners tend to describe problems they face in terms of a character flaw in their partner. It might sound like starting accusatory sentences with "You always," "You never," or directly insulting a partner (i.e. "You're a liar"). When we criticize, we are making problems about some perceived personality flaw in our partner, and putting our partner down.


When there is defensiveness in a relationship, partners tend to deflect any feedback from their significant other as if they had a shield. This may be done by counter-attacking, whining/playing the victim, or some similar behavior to ward off any perceived "attack" or future attack.


Contempt is the single best predictor of relationship breakup in heterosexual couples. Contempt looks like one or both partners placing themselves in a superior or "better than" position than their partners. It might look a partner setting themselves up as being smarter, a better parent, more virtuous, more loving, etc.


You will know stonewalling is occurring when one or more partners withdraws from the conversation without leaving the room. They stop giving any indicators that they are engaged with their partner. This might look like looking or turning away, sitting quietly, giving no verbal or nonverbal indicators of engagement, etc.

But don't worry, the Gottmans helpfully identify specific antidotes we can use to move away from our use of the Four Horsemen and toward healthier relationships with our partners. If you relate to any of the descriptions above, HERE is what you can do:

The antidote for Criticism is gentle startup. Ever learned how to use an "I message?" That's an example of Gentle Startup. We can speak of a problem in terms of what has happened, what we feel, and what we wish/want/desire, rather than using those "You" messages. For example, instead of "You don't shower enough, that's why I never want to have sex with you any more," you might try, "I miss our sex life, and I'm always especially turned on when you step out of the shower smelling like that soap you like....I'd feel so turned on if you jumped in the shower after you got home from work."

The antidote for Defensiveness is to find a way to accept responsibility for even a small part of the problem. This might look like saying, "Huh, okay, I didn't realize that was bothering you so much. I guess I DO kinda do that sometimes."

What about Contempt? We can tackle this by focusing on our own feelings and needs (as noted above in managing Criticism), while also cultivating a culture of appreciation and positive sentiment in our relationship. This could look like paying attention to what you DO appreciate and admire about your partner, and focusing on and giving appreciation for those qualities.

And in terms of Stonewalling, we can work to notice times when we or our partner feels overwhelmed or "flooded" in an interaction and assist each other in practicing self-soothing techniques such as taking a break, focusing on our breathing, performing a tense and release exercise, etc.

If you're struggling to implement these suggestions on your own, a qualified couples therapist can really help you learn how to use these or other skills to help you work toward the kind of relationship you want to be in.

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