Four Horsemen

Understanding Communication Toxicity in Your Relationship

One of the most common concerns couples identify as an issue in their relationship is communication. Most couples feel like communication (or lack thereof) leads to conflict and that conflict is a negative part of their relationship. However, conflict is a normal part of a relationship and is going to happen. I often tell couples that if you don’t ever have conflict then that’s an issue. 

Oftentimes it’s not the specific conflict that is at issue, it’s how you effectively communicate and work through the conflict that is key to the overall health of your relationship. Part of my role as a couple’s therapist is often to teach couples how to work through conflict effectively rather than avoid the fight!

When we look at how to resolve conflict, identifying patterns of communication is important. How do you start up a conversation or the discussion of a conflicting issue? How do you show your partner you are listening and understanding their point of view? How do you stay connected in order to work through the issue? Many of these concerns can be addressed in couple’s therapy. 

Who are the Four Horsemen

In my sessions with couples struggling with communication issues, we often look at the “The Four Horsemen.” The horsemen concept comes from the Gottman Method and are communication behaviours in relationships that many people can identify with. Through Dr. Gottman’s research, he identified four areas of communication distress, that if used often and not corrected, are predictors of divorce.


We know that when you start off a conversation with criticism it instantly makes the other person feel defensive. If conversations start with “you always…” or “you never…”, this is a criticism of the other person’s personality or character vs. a complaint about a specific issue. This type of communication behaviour can escalate quickly and will leave you or your partner feeling hurt and angry, and less willing to work through the issue.


Defensiveness is a move to protect yourself when you feel under attack and is typically a response to criticism. It often leads to continuous, unhelpful interactions as it escalates the conflict. Defensiveness looks like whining, making excuses, responding instantly with “but,” and counter-attacking.


Individuals stonewall because they become too overwhelmed with the conversation and don’t know how to work through the issue. It is an unhealthy way to avoid conflict by not engaging. This type of behavior looks like shutting down, turning away, disengaging, or becoming silent. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the conversation and can’t communicate effectively, it is best that you disengage. However, it’s important that you notify your partner that you are starting to shut down and need time to calm down. Once you are calm, it’s important you come back and reengage in the conversation.


Contempt often happens due to a build-up of resentment and not vocalizing your needs. It arises in the form of an attack on someone’s sense of self and conveys moral superiority over their partner. Contempt in a relationship is the single best predictor of divorce. Contempt often looks like the rolling of eyes, hostile humor, sneering, name-calling, and/or sarcasm.

Understanding the four horsemen and being able to identify which of these you use in your interactions with your partner is important. Recognizing and identifying these behaviours is the first step to help change the way you communicate as a couple. 

Couples counselling can help identify these patterns and give you ways to combat the negative interaction cycle. If you need help overcoming the four horsemen and learning how to more effectively communicate with your partner, I can help.  

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