Do you and your partner engage in conflict often? When a conflict occurs, does it cause harm to your relationship? If so, you may be struggling with creating healthy and productive communication patterns. Trust is at the core of every healthy relationship, and engaging in destructive communication patterns that destroy trust. Through the Gottman Institute, a research based approach to relationships, the concept of the Four Horsemen was created. The Four Horseman is a metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the downfall of a relationship. Being able to identify the Four Horseman in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them and replacing them with their antidotes of healthy, productive communication. The Four Horseman include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. As a Tampa couples counselor, I am trained in the Gottman Method and understand how these traits can significantly impact a relationship if intertwined in conflict discussions. So, what do these Four Horseman mean and what are their antidotes?

The 4 Communication Patterns that Destroy Trust


Criticism is verbally attacking personality or character. Criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. It is an attack on your partner at the core of their character, dismantling their whole being when you criticize. The “you always do this” type of comment. 

To differentiate:

  • Complaint: “I was nervous when you didn’t call to let me know you were running late from work. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”
  • Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish. You never think of others! You never think of me!”

If you find that you and your partner are critical of each other, don’t assume your relationship is doomed to fail. It makes your partner feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and often can fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity, which eventually leads to contempt. The antidote to this communication pattern is a gentle startup, talk about your feelings using “I” statements and express a positive need.


Contempt is attacking the sense of self with intent to insult or abuse. When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean—we treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names, and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.Contempt goes far beyond criticism. While criticism attacks your partner’s character, contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over them. Contempt, often this verbal abuse, offers no opportunity for joining or resolution. Contempt is the harshest of the Four Horseman, and contempt in a relationship is the single greatest predictor of divorce. The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation. Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and find gratitude for positive actions. Intentionally practice naming appreciation.


Defensiveness is victimizing yourself to ward off perceived attack and reverse the blame. Defensiveness is typically a response to criticism. When we feel unjustly accused, we fish for excuses and play the innocent victim so that our partner will back off.

Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take their concerns seriously and that we won’t take responsibility for our mistakes:

  • Question: “Did you text the babysitter that we had a change of plans like you promised this morning?”
  • Defensive response: “I was just too busy today. As a matter of fact, you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?

This partner not only responds defensively, but they reverse blame in an attempt to make it the other partner’s fault. The “it’s all your fault” type of comments. Defensiveness escalates conflict and deflects shared responsibility. The antidote to defensiveness is to take responsibility. Accept your partner’s perspective and offer an apology for any wrongdoing. Be curious about the co-created dynamic.


Stonewalling is withdrawing to avoid conflict and convey disapproval, distance, and separation, and is usually a response to contempt. Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding to their partner. Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall can make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, ignoring, acting busy, engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors, or fear based shutting down. The antidote to stone walling is physiological self soothing. Try taking a break and get grounded by spending time doing something soothing and distracting. In conflict, try asking: “Okay, I’m feeling too angry to keep talking about this. Can we please take a break and come back to it in a bit? It’ll be easier to work through this after I’ve calmed down.”

The Four Horsemen can deeply impact you and your partner’s relationship. If you feel you are currently engaging in communication patterns that destroy trust, our Tampa couples counselors are Gottman Method trained to help you. We are here to support you and assist you in building healthy and productive communication patterns. Contact Rise Counseling today!