The Four Horsemen, Part I: Criticism and Contempt

On today’s blog, I’m going to be sharing some information related to Gottman Method Couples Therapy. I have previously focused on Emotionally-Focused Therapy in blogs related to couples therapy, as this is the approach that I have training in. The Gottman Method is another approach to couples therapy that is based in research, and I have started taking training courses in it. I love learning and exploring different way to conceptualize relationships so that I can support clients in the best way possible.

This and the following blog will focus on what The Gottman Institute refers to as The Four Horsemen: Defensiveness, Criticism, Stonewalling, and Contempt. Each of these represent a communication style that, according to their research, can predict the end of a relationship.


Criticism is different than a critique or complaint in that it is an attack on your partner at their core. You are not addressing a specific issue; you are attaching them. Criticism can pave the way for the other three horsemen if it is not recognized and replaced with a different style of communication.

A couple clues that you may be criticizing rather than critiquing: 1. You are using global words like “always” or “never”. 2. You are describing (well, more like attacking) who your partner is as a person, rather than a specific situation or behavior.

“You are so lazy. You never help with chores around the house, and you always leave your messes around. You never think of me.”

Instead, describe what the actual problem is. How are you feeling in response to a particular situation, and what are you needing?

“I’m feeling really overwhelmed by the amount of housework that I have been responsible for. I need help, and would appreciate if we could come up with a better system”.


This communication style is dripping with disrespect, sarcasm, and ridicule. It may include belittling comments, eye-rolling or smirking, or name calling. The partner receiving contempt may experience being despised by their partner or feeling worthless.

“Oh, that makes you feel upset? You’re such a baby. Grow up and get over it. Trying to talk to you is like dealing with a child. Please, that wouldn’t even bother me if I was you.”

Not only are you attacking your partner at their core, you are also positioning yourself on a higher moral ground. According to The Gottman Institute, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce.

Contempt may be a part of your repertoire because you yourself experienced contempt in early relationships, or you saw contempt modeled in relationships you grew up around. Contempt may also develop when an individual has experienced an attachment betrayal in the relationship that has gone unresolved.

Underlying contempt are unmet and unspoken needs and feelings. These need to be identified and explored within the relationship, and without the use of contempt.

To learn more or to book an appointment, contact me via telephone or email.

Brenna Burke, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Valencia, CA. She provides individual psychotherapy and couples counseling. Information provided through this website is for informational purposes only. It does not create a therapist-client relationship and does not replace clinical assessment or professional consultation.