Antidotes to The Four Horsemen of Relationships

Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S

March 15, 2024

Certain negative communication patterns can significantly undermine a couple's sense of connection and understanding in the realm of relationship dynamics. Dr. John Gottman's research into couples' interactions has famously identified these patterns as The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. However, the power of this couples therapy research lies not only in identifying what can go wrong but also in offering clear, actionable strategies — or "antidotes" — to counteract these destructive habits. In this blog post, we explore these antidotes and how they can be applied to foster healthier, more resilient relationships.

Criticism vs. Gentle Start-Up

Criticism, the act of expressing disapproval by focusing on perceived faults or shortcomings in one's partner, often serves as the spark that ignites many relationship conflicts. It's a pattern that, over time, can erode the foundation of love and respect that healthy relationships are built upon. Recognizing criticism and transforming it into a gentle start-up requires a shift towards addressing specific behaviors or situations rather than attacking your partner's character or personality. 

The Issue

Criticism attacks a partner’s character or personality, often leading to defensiveness and conflict escalation.

The Antidote

A Gentle Start-Up involves addressing issues with specific complaints and requests rather than global attacks on character. It’s about saying what you need in a positive, respectful way.


Instead of saying, "You never listen to me," try, "I feel ignored when I talk about my day and you're on your phone. Can we set aside time to talk without distractions?"

Contempt vs. Building a Culture of Appreciation

Contempt stands as one of the most corrosive forces in relationships, characterized by expressions of superiority and disrespect towards one's partner. This toxic behavior can manifest through sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, and eye-rolling, among other demeaning actions. The antidote to contempt involves building a culture of appreciation within the relationship — a proactive effort to focus on and express what you value and admire in your partner.

The Issue

Contempt expresses disdain towards one's partner, eroding the mutual respect that is foundational to any relationship.

The Antidote

Building a Culture of Appreciation involves actively focusing on and voicing what you value and admire in your partner, counteracting negativity with positivity.


Make it a daily habit to express something you appreciate about your partner, even for the small things. This practice can significantly lift the relationship's overall tone.

Defensiveness vs. Taking Responsibility

Defensiveness is a natural response to feeling attacked or criticized, but it can escalate conflicts instead of resolving them. It often takes the form of making excuses, denying responsibility, or counter-attacking, which can prevent couples from addressing the underlying issues at hand. Moving away from defensiveness towards taking responsibility allows individuals to acknowledge their part in conflicts, however small, and contributes to a solution-focused dialogue. 

The Issue

Defensiveness is a way of avoiding taking responsibility for issues, often redirecting them back to one's partner.

The Antidote

Taking Responsibility means acknowledging your part in a conflict or problem, however small, which can prevent escalation and open the path to resolution.


When faced with a complaint, try to find some truth in what your partner is saying, even if you don't agree with all of it. For example, "You're right, I did forget to take out the trash. I'll do it now."

Stonewalling vs. Physiological Self-Soothing

Stonewalling, or emotionally withdrawing from an interaction, is a defense mechanism often employed to avoid conflict or confrontation. However, this approach can leave the other partner feeling isolated and unheard, damaging the relationship's emotional connection. The key to overcoming stonewalling lies in physiological self-soothing — techniques that individuals can use to calm themselves and regulate their emotional responses.

The Issue

Stonewalling involves withdrawing from a conversation or interaction and shutting down communication.

The Antidote

Physiological Self-Soothing is about taking a break to calm down and reduce physiological arousal, allowing for a more constructive re-engagement with the discussion.


If you feel overwhelmed during a disagreement, suggest taking a 20-minute break before continuing the conversation. Use this time for a calming activity, like a walk or deep-breathing exercises.

For Marriage and Couples Counselors in Austin, TX, Trust Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S

Transforming the way we communicate in moments of conflict can have profound effects on our relationships. The antidotes to The Four Horsemen offer a roadmap for moving from conflict to connection, helping couples build a relationship based on understanding, respect, and love.

At Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S, we are committed to supporting couples in navigating the complexities of their relationships through thoughtful, informed therapeutic interventions. If you recognize The Four Horsemen in your own relationship and seek guidance on employing these antidotes, we invite you to reach out. Together, we can work towards transforming your relationship into a source of strength and joy through our trusted couples and marriage counselors in Austin, TX. Contact us today to schedule your free consultation

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