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Couples Counseling

Worth The Work: How to Save Your Relationship

Relationships are hard. Most people agree relationships take work. Often what starts as a romantic partnership can turn into monotonous parallel living. Other times it looks like daily arguments or attacks leaving us wondering what work we need to do to save the relationship.

John Gottman, founder of the Gottman Institute, discovered a way to predict divorce by listening to the first three minutes of a couple in a conflict. Not only can he predict divorce within the first three minutes, he is correct 82 percent of the time.

So, what is he looking at in those three minutes? What areas of the relationship has he discovered are worth working on? 

In Gottman’s research, he identified negative communication styles he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. When one or more of these Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are present in the way the couple argues, it is a red flag. When unaddressed, these Four Horsemen escalate the situation and lead to more conflict. 

Before you can make any changes in the way you argue, the first step is gaining awareness of the Four Horsemen. Then, see when and where they show up in your own relationship and start your work there!

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse


criticism is pointing blame at the other person

The first of the Four Horsemen is criticism. Criticism takes the focus from the action and extends the complaint to who your partner is. It is an attack of character. The following is an example of criticism versus complaint. “I am angry you forgot to take out the trash and now the kitchen smells disgusting” and “You are disgusting because you didn’t take out the trash”. One of those is complaining about the behavior and the other is criticizing the person. 


people in need of relationship work, body language of contempt

The second of the Four Horsemen is contempt. Contempt is all about positioning yourself above your partner. Using contempt makes the user feel superior. Contempt can look like eye-rolling, laughing under your breath, or a verbal expression of disgust about your partner. Contempt is one of the biggest predictors of divorce. If one partner constantly feels inferior, there is little room for discussion and growth in the relationship. 


couple arguing in defensive stance

The third Horsemen is defensiveness. Defensiveness is self-protective and places the blame on your partner. When one partner uses defensiveness, they are deflecting the attack. This deflection process creates a cycle of defensiveness and other negative communication styles. The cycle continues with nothing changing or worse the argument again escalates.


couple with backs turned toward each other in stonewalling position

The last of the Four Horsemen is stonewalling. This is when one partner shuts down and withdraws from the conversation. Often stonewalling occurs when one partner feels overwhelmed. When the partner is overwhelmed, they pull away and avoid the argument altogether. Over time by avoiding conflict they also avoid the relationship itself. When one partner stonewalls, it leaves the other partner feeling frustrated. The cycle continues. 

You might be thinking “ok great if I just stop using the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse my marriage will be happy”. Yes, that is a good first step! And like most things, there is more work to do in the relationship. If you eliminate the Four Horsemen, you must replace them with healthier communication behaviors. 

Once you eliminate an unhelpful habit, you have to fill the void with a more helpful one instead.

If the void is left unfilled a new bad habit will sneak into its place. It’s not enough to trade one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for another. You must replace it with a positive communication style. 

After years of observing and practicing the wrong way to communicate it is no doubt hard to change. Whether you have been together for a few months or many years we fall into patterns that are hard to break. Often, the homes we grew up in were filled with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They become so familiar it’s easy for them to pop up in our everyday communication.

It takes awareness and work to changes these relationship habits. This is where couples counseling can help. 

One area couple counseling can help with is building self-awareness. With self-awareness you can begin to see the Four Horsemen in your own relationship. Then the work to eliminate the Four Horsemen AND replace them with healthy styles of communication can begin. 

Relationships do take work. It is helpful to spend time working on what is proven to create positive change.

If you want help gaining awareness of these patterns

or want to learn the replacement positive behaviors, look no further! Couples Counseling at MCCC is a great place to start. There is no perfect time to start but if you notice those Four Horsemen showing up in your relationship, it’s already time!

About The Author

Kelli Carter, couples counselor  intern

Kelli Carter is a Clinical Mental Health Intern at Montgomery Counseling Center, in Rockville, Maryland. Kelli is a graduate student working toward her clinical mental health counseling masters degree. This training training has given her experience in a variety of evidenced based counseling practices. Kelli is currently completing Training in Level 1 Gottman’s Method.

Through counseling she explores how to build relationships with others and yourself that will help you in your daily life. She aims to help clients gain more self-awareness and give resources to be your best self and grow in healthy relationships with others. Kelli is currently accepting new clients at MCCC at a reduced-rate. Kelli is directly supervised by MCCC founder Laura Goldstein, LCMFT.

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