The Four Horsemen of High Conflict Communication and Their Antidotes

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The Four Horsemen of High Conflict Communication and Their Antidotes

In the Bible, there are scenarios that can bring the end of the world characterized as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In a relationship, there are "Four Horsemen" that can end your relationship to others. / Photo by: germanjames via 123RF


The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament section of the Bible indicates the end of the world. Similarly, in Dr. John Gottman’s theory, these are toxic communication styles that can foreshadow the ending of a relationship.

When couples use these Four Horsemen in their conversations, this makes it difficult for them to be happy in their relationship and they also do not help in successfully solving the problem, Modern Thrill states. There are ways, however, to counter these negative communication styles which Gottman refers to as their antidotes.

The Four Horsemen


According to the Gottman Institute, the four destructive communication styles known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are:


It is important to be able to distinguish between criticism and complaint. Criticism makes a direct assault on a person’s character, while a complaint talks about certain issues. When the criticism permeates the relationship, it makes it more likely for the other horsemen to appear. The partner who is at the receiving end of the criticism will feel attacked, wounded, and rejected.  This may cause them to get trapped into a cycle wherein the first horseman repeatedly appears, with increasing force and recurrence. This may also result in contempt.

Criticism has good and bad effects but if criticism is done in a bad way, it can cause a severe effect on the relationship and that is where the "First Horseman" will come followed by the three others. / Photo by: imagesbavaria via 123RF



This is a disrespectful form of communication which aims to make another person feel despised and worthless. An individual may express contempt for their partner through insults, sarcasm, name-calling, imitating their partner’s actions in a taunting way or through non-verbal cues such as rolling their eyes.

It takes criticism to a new level by making the person appear as the one who is more morally superior. It is incited by the negative thoughts they have about their partner. It is a communication style that should be completely removed because aside from a research showing that contemptuous couples have a tendency to acquire infectious illnesses, it is also said to be the greatest predictor of divorce.


It is a form of blaming the partner and is usually a reaction to criticism. A person may feel like their partner has wrongfully accused them, so as a response they make excuses and assume the role of the victim in order for their partner to stop criticizing them. They may also turn back the blame to the partner to make it look like they were the one at fault.

Defensiveness may also be a result of being too stressed or feeling attacked. The problem may worsen if the critical partner does not apologize or stop themselves. Using this approach to communicate will not help in resolving the conflict.


This is often a way to counter contempt. This happens when the partner becomes disengaged from the interaction. They may withdraw, close down, and ignore whatever their partner is saying. They may suddenly tune out of the conversation, pretend to be busy or do other obsessive or distracting behaviors.


One of the ways to avoid the "Four Horsemen" to come is to build a culture of appreciation and respect to others. / Photo by: Sergey Nivens via 123RF


To address the issues that may arise from using the four horsemen, romantic partners should try integrating the antidotes, which are:

Gentle startup

This is a positive response to criticism. This involves discussing a person’s feelings through “I” statements, as well as telling the partner what they need in a positive and respectful manner.

Build a culture of appreciation and respect

This is a way to diffuse contempt. Couples may build a culture of appreciation and respect through the “small things often” method and the "magic method".

The small things often method helps the couple form a positive view of their relationship by encouraging both partners to be affectionate, thankful, and appreciative towards each other. This helps to keep them from feeling negative about the relationship,

On the other hand, the "magic method" is described as having five positive or more interactions for each negative interaction. This will add up to their “emotional bank account” and helps them maintain a healthy relationship.

Taking responsibility

Both partners must be able to own up to their part of the problem. They should take responsibility by identifying how they contributed to the problem. This may also lead them to reaching a compromise.

Physiological Self-soothing

As a way to prevent stone walling, the affected partner, or the couple, are advised to take a break from their argument for at least 20 minutes. During this break, they should engage in activities that soothe them and distract them such as exercising, reading, or listening to music.

Twenty minutes is the recommended time for stepping away from the discussion because that is the duration of when the body physiologically relaxes. They should try not to think of thoughts of righteous indignation or being the innocent victim while taking a break.

After that break, they may continue where they left off in a more calm, respectful, and logical manner.

Communicate Positively for the Relationship to Last Longer

For a long-term intimate relationship to stay healthy, couples are advised to use the antidotes to the Four Horsemen and communicate more positively by using love, respect, and kindness in dealing with each other. This will cause their relationship to grow and make them happier as a couple.  



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