Marriage Therapist: the Four Horsemen antidotes

Marriage Therapist

In my previous post entitled Marriage Therapy: The Four Horsemen I introduced you to the work of marriage therapist couple John and Julie Gottman regarding the four communication patterns that are strongly correlated with divorce.  These four horsemen are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.  Thankfully the Gottmans have also identified the antidotes to the four horsemen.  These antidotes provide alternative strategies that if implemented can heal wounds and restore connection in the marriage relationship. 

Antidote to Criticism = The Gentle Start Up:

Criticism is more than a complaint it is an attack on your partners character or personality.  The antidote is the gentle start up.  When you are frustrated with your partner’s behavior focus on yourself rather than them. What are you feeling in this moment?  Strong emotion can drive the behavior of criticism.  Focus on identifying your feeling, expressing it directly by saying “I feel…”  and then communicate what you need from your partner. “I feel hurt and I need to connect with you by talking about my day”.  Using the “I feel…I need” approach helps your partner to know what is going on inside you and allows for more understanding and intimacy.

Antidote to Contempt = Build a Culture of Appreciation

The second horseman of contempt involves putting your partner down through name-calling or insults.  Contempt can be avoided by building a culture of appreciation. This time rather than focusing on self I challenge you to focus on the positive qualities of your partner.  What are her/his strengths? How has your partner served you this week? What positive quality attracted you to him/her in the first place?  Focus on these qualities and verbalize your appreciation.  Appreciation must be honest and specific but there is always something positive to appreciate.

Antidote to Defensiveness = Take responsibility

Defensiveness stems from the first two horsemen and is a basic attempt to protect ones sense of wellbeing.  The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility.  We all make mistakes, and making a mistake does not mean we are “bad” it means we are human. So, seeking to understand how your partner views a situation and admitting where you fell short can disarm criticism and lead to deeper connection.

Antidote to Stonewalling = Physiological Self-soothing

Stonewalling is an exhausted partners attempt at coping with strong emotions and hurt, from which, there seem to be no escape.   The antidote to stonewalling is to take a break with the intent of caring for self and managing the difficult feelings.  You may like to read a book, take a walk, listen to music or have a snack.  No matter what it is do something that allows you to calm your nerves so you can return to your partner more available for openness and communication.

Marriage therapist: The Antidote

These antidotes to the four horsemen of the marriage apocalypse can begin the process of healing from pain and disconnection.  This process will take time and a lot of work but it is worth it to obtain reconciliation and growth.  If you would like more information about couples counseling you can read more here or call 217-231-1413 to set up an appointment with a marriage therapist.

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Marriage Therapy: The Four Horsemen

marriage therapy

Marriage therapy is focused on helping couples heal the hurts that have accrued over the years in a relationship.   It is common for couples to enter marriage therapy deeply hurt, angry, and frustrated.  It is also common for couples to have a hard time articulating exactly what it is that brought them to such a place.  Many cite infidelity, money issues, or stress at work.  Others describe fighting about the same thing over and over with difficulty avoiding the constant battles. 

Renowned marriage therapists John and Julie Gottman use a metaphor to describe the communication patterns that predict divorce.   They describe the four horseman of the marriage apocalypse as criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. 


Criticism occurs when a partner attacks the character of their spouse.  It is more than communicating disagreement or dislike for a specific behavior.  Criticism is more generally and attacks the person.  Leaving ones clothes on the bathroom floor may evoke a comment stating,  “you are selfish and don’t think of how this impacts me” as opposed to a more specific comment like “leaving your clothes on the bathroom floor bothers me”.  When unchecked criticism tends to increase over time and can lead to the second horseman of contempt.


Contempt goes even further than criticism and seems to have roots in feelings of anger.  A spouse communicates contempt through the use of sarcasm, name-calling, put downs and negative body language.  Contempt may cause the target to feel despised or worthless. 


Criticism and contempt can result in defensiveness. When one is feeling attacked it is common to defend as a way to protect against blame or hurt. This approach however tends to make things worse as the critical partner views the defense as excuses and may feel unvalued and ignored.  John Gottman suggests apologizing and taking ownership for ones actions in place of defensiveness as a way to disarm criticism and contempt.


Stonewalling occurs when one partner has had all they can handle of the first three horsemen and builds a wall to protect from the onslaught.  Couples often refer to stonewalling as shutting down or checking out.  The stonewalling partner is overwhelmed and does not know how to get unstuck and so becomes passive as a last resort.  This may include distracting oneself with work, outside interests, or busy activities. 

The solution: Marriage Therapy

So what can a couple do?  For many working with a licensed counselor can help to overcome the four horseman and learn more adaptive communication strategies that lead to connection and reconciliation.  If you are interested in marriage therapy give us a call at 217-231-1413 to get started. If you have more questions go here to read more about my approach to couples counseling and subscribe to the blog below to get our next post on the the four antidotes to the four horsemen.