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Psychologist John Gottman did 40 years of research on couples. One of the reasons that some couples are less likely to stay together is because of the way they navigate conflict. Fighting is a normal part of relationships. The real question is how do you fight? Do you get defensive and make sarcastic jabs? Do you approach your partner with a soft tone? Do you give them space to share their feelings ?

Gottman, in his love lab, studied 3,000 couples. He put couples into 2 categories: relationship masters and relationship disasters. He found that these two groups dealt with communication very differently. Through his research, he discovered that there were 4 patterns that unhappy couples were engaging in. These patterns were damaging relationships the most.

He called these the 4 horsemen, as they signal the end of a relationship.

The 4 horsemen

The 4 horsemen are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt

In his research, Gottman found that people are most likely to engage in the 4 horsemen when they are emotionally flooded. When we are emotionally flooded, we are in fight or flight mode. This means that our bodies are in a state of hyperarousal, and we are experiencing physiological changes.
When you are emotionally flooded, you might clench your jaw, you may feel furious, you may feel flustered and not be able to get the words out, your temperature may increase, your face may feel hot.

According to Stephanie Manes, LCSW, when you are in this space, you are not in your thinking brain. When you are in fight or flight, your body is preparing for battle. This is when you are most likely to fight in ways that are damaging.

Disasters and Masters

Let’s take a look at how relationship disasters and masters do things differently

Disasters use criticismCriticism is pointing the finger at the other person. You are this. You are that.

Criticism is hurtful to our relationships. When we engage in criticism it impacts our connection and our trust.

Disasters: What is wrong with you?

Masters: Do you know how you work so many hours? I would really like it if you would make time for our relationship

Defensivenesswhen we are defensive, we explain ourselves and we don’t take responsibility for our actions.

When we are defensive, we come off as angry and it blocks us from taking responsibility for our role in something

Disasters: I don’t scream. That is not true. You are the one who screams

Masters: I hear that you want me to work on talking to you differently. I will soften my tone.

Stonewalling is when we shut down or tune our partners out

Stonewalling is typically not being done to intentionally hurt someone. Stonewalling is often a person’s way of protecting the relationship instead of doing or saying harmful things. However, there are better ways to handle conflict than to shut down.

Disasters Stonewall by turning away or tuning their partners out

Masters have learned to let their partners know that they need to step away for some space

Contempt is the most damaging of the 4 horsemen

Have you ever been in conflict and hit below the belt? Have you ever called your partner a name or put them down? Have you ever jabbed or used sarcasm during conflict? Most of us have done all of these things at some point in our lives. This is contempt.

Disasters use contempt by name-calling, jabbing and using sarcasm

Masters have learned to recognize when they need to step away from a conversation so that they do not engage in hurtful behaviors

Change the Trajectory

When couples learn to stop using the 4 horsemen in their relationship, it changes the trajectory of their relationship.

Here are some tactics to keep emotional flooding from harming your relationship


Pausing is one of the kindest things that you can do for your relationship. It requires a high level of self-awareness. First, we have to know that we are moving to a damaging place and second, we have to be willing to move away temporarily. When we pause or take a break, it gives our bodies time to return to baseline. When we return to baseline, we can use our rational brain which help us to put things into perspective and navigate conversations rationally and with more consideration. Make a pact with your partner that you will both take a time out when one of you is activated.

Learn to self soothe

When we are able to self soothe, it aids all of our relationships. This is one of the most important skills that you can learn for relationship health. Use the 5 senses to self soothe: sight, taste, touch, smell, sound.

Here are some examples of self sooting activities:

Engaging in a project


Listening to a podcast or music

Drinking something warm or cold

Talking to a friend

Building or creating something

Lighting a candle

Taking a hot bath or shower

Moving your body in some way

Remember that practicing self-soothing can help you in all of the areas of your life and in all of your relationships

Modern Therapy and Wellness is a specialty therapy practice in Louisiana. We provide in person and virtual therapy. We have therapists who specialize in relationships, substance abuse and trauma. Our relationship specialists use the Gottman method.

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