For those of us who have been fortunate enough to fall in love, we have likely experienced relational conflict. After all, it is simply inevitable that we will face communication breakdowns at various points in our relationships. However, what is not inevitable is our reaction to conflicts and our ability to communicate efficiently with our significant others. Psychologist John Gottman’s Cascade Model of Relational Dissolution—better known as Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Relational Apocalypse—is a relational communications model that identifies four harmful communication approaches that lead to the breakdown of romantic relationships. 

  1. Criticism

According to Gottman, criticism is a complaint that casts blame onto another person and attacks their character or personality. It differs from a regular complaint in that it targets the person instead of a specific issue at hand. For example: 

    • Complaint: “It made me feel left out when you went to the neighbor’s party without me. I thought we agreed to go together.” 
    • Criticism: “I honestly cannot believe you went without me. You are always so self-centered!”

Gottman’s proposed antidote to criticism is what he refers to as a soft start-up. A soft start-up serves to bring awareness to a specific problem in the relationship without casting judgment or blame. To accomplish this, Gottman recommends using statements that start with “I” instead of “You” and expressing what you need positively. For example: 

    • Soft Start-Up: “I am feeling a bit left out that you went to the neighbor’s party without me. I love spending time with you so I’d love to go together next time. What do you think?”

2. Contempt

Contempt goes a step above criticism by assuming moral superiority over a partner and is typically expressed through disrespect, mockery, ridicule, sneering, name-calling, and eye-rolling. For example:

    • Contempt: “You didn’t take the trash out… again? God, you’re so lazy. I shouldn’t have to remind you over and over to do the most basic things.”

Gottman’s antidote to contempt is to build a culture of respect and appreciation within relationships. Gottman proposes that partners engage in the regular expression of appreciation, respect, and gratitude towards each other. For example: 

    • Expression of Appreciation: “I understand you’ve had a lot going on lately, but could you please remember to take the trash out when I’m not home? I really would appreciate it.”   

3. Defensiveness

According to Gottman, defensiveness is often a reaction to criticism and a form of self-protection in which one assumes victimhood and avoids responsibility as a means of warding off a perceived attack. For example:

    • Defensiveness: “Oh I’m sorry I can’t do every little thing around the house. You know I have other priorities so why do you keep nagging me about it when you could just do it yourself when you get home from work?” 

Gottman’s antidote to defensiveness is to take responsibility for our roles in conflicts as a means of mitigating further escalation. 

    • Taking Responsibility: “I have been pretty focused on other projects lately, but you’re right. I can take a break and take out the trash while you’re at work.” 

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling occurs when one attempts to create physical and mental distance from their partner by refusing to communicate. Walking away without explanation, refusing to acknowledge dismissive behaviors, and avoiding discussion of one’s feelings are all examples of stonewalling. 

Gottman’s antidote to stonewalling is what he refers to as self-soothing. This consists of taking (at least) a twenty-minute break when feeling overwhelmed during the conflict to calm down. For example: 

    • Self-Soothing: “Look, I’m feeling too overwhelmed to talk about this. Do you think we can take a break and come back to this once I’ve calmed down a bit?” 

Conflict is inevitable in relationships. The more time we spend with our significant other, the more likely we are to have disagreements. Fortunately, with the knowledge of Gottman’s Four Horsemen and their respective antidotes, you now have a well-rounded approach to managing relational conflict healthily. Which of these strategies would you like to work on with your partner over the next several weeks? If you’d like additional support, you may consider working with a therapist? Our therapists at Pacific CBT are highly trained to help you. Contact us today to schedule a free, 15-minute video consultation.

About the Author: Christian Wertman currently works as a behavior therapist in the field of applied behavior analysis. Christian received his Bachelor’s degree in psychology from San Francisco State University and has aspirations for a career in clinical psychology.

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