Killing communication in a long-term committed relationship: The Four Horseman 

By Frieda Friedemann

In the previous blog post we have discussed Dr. John Gottman’s “five-step trajectory” to attunement failure in a relationship. Constant failure to attune can be a serious threat to a relationship if it is not properly addressed. If you think your relationship is affecting your mental health consider reaching out to our experts at the Centre for Clinical Psychology in Melbourne today. In today’s blog we will explore the fifth step – The Four Horseman as described by Dr. Gottman and Nan Silver in their book “What Makes Love Last – How to build trust and avoid betrayal” (2013).

Defining attunement failure

To review, Dr. Gottman defines attunement in adult relationships as: “the desire and the ability to understand and respect your partner’s inner world”. According to him, “attunement offers a blueprint for building and reviving trust in a long-term committed relationship. When this element is in short supply, partners don’t demonstrate understanding of each others inner life or communicate that awareness in a supportive manner.” (Gottman, 2013).

The five step trajectory 

The five step-trajectory to attunement failure consists of:

1. A sliding door moment

2. A regrettable incident

3. The Zeigarnik Effect

4. Negative Sentiment Override

5. The Four Horseman

The Four Horseman

As a couple’s interactions become more and more negative, their communication suffers. On the last level, the four horseman consisting of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling effectively block communication.

  1. Criticism

Criticism can have significant negative effects. Instead of attacking your partner, use a gentle start-up to express relationship concerns positively. For instance Dr. Gottman recommends, rather than saying, “You never do what you say you will“, consider saying, “There are still crumbs on the table. I need them to be cleaned up.” This avoids implying a personality flaw.

  1. Contempt

Contempt is a form of verbal abuse that implies that the partner is inferior. It can include name-calling, sarcasm, sneering and belittling. Examples provided by Dr. Gottman are:

“You call that cleaning? Can’t you do anything right? Hand over the sponge.”

“Do you have some kind of mental problem? Why is this so difficult for you to grasp? We have to be there by seven!”

“Did you check the label? Can you read? You show me where it says DIET iced tea.”

  1. Defensiveness

When faced with a verbal attack, we often tend to defend ourselves. Defensiveness can consist of righteous indignation, counterattacks, or portraying oneself as an innocent victim. Despite feeling justified, defensive responses do not resolve conflicts; instead, they escalate tension. According to Dr. Gottman, “the antidote to defensiveness is accepting responsibility for part of the problem.”

  1. Stonewalling

When faced with tension and verbal attacks, the partner experiencing physical distress can stop listening cues like head nods and eye contact. Instead, they become like a stone wall, blocking all stimuli. While this response is an attempt to recover from being verbally attacked, it hinders any chance of resolving the disagreement.

While avoiding these communication traps is crucial to improve communication, it is not enough to resolve all problems. True healing requires rebuilding mutual trust.

Seeking help

If your relationship impacts your mental health take the first step towards healing today and call us at the Centre for Clinical Psychology in Melbourne on 03 9077 0122 to book your appointment. We can help you develop the skills and strategies you need to manage your emotions and improve your mental health. Remember: You’re not alone!


John Mordechai Gottman, & Silver, N. (2013). What makes love last?: how to build trust and avoid betrayal. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.