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Gottman’s 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Illustrated Handout

Dr. John Gottman spent 40 years researching marital stability and theorized these “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” but it only took me a few hours to turn them into angry ponies. While Gottman’s research centers on couples, I think these are applicable to many types of relationships – especially in how parents and their adolescents communicate with each other.

Communication patterns that destroy trust: Gottman's 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Adolescence is naturally bumpy and laced with conflict. The parent/child relationship changes rapidly as teens cycle between the exhilaration of independence and the safety of dependence. While conflict is natural, it shouldn’t feel toxic – help foster generative conflict in many types of relationships by showing up with vulnerability and avoiding blame.

Criticism (also blame). "You always do this!" Instead: talk about your feelings.

Criticism (a form of blame). A partner who engages conflict in a criticism-based way might say something like “you always do this!” (Look for words like always and never.)

Resolution for this type of non-generative conflict can come through talking about the feelings you are having instead of locating them outside of yourself.

Contempt (hiding). Contempt (often verbal abuse) offers NO opportunity for joining and resolution. Instead: intentionally practice naming appreciation.

Contempt (hiding). Contempt can often look like verbal abuse in a relationship. Contempt offers no opportunity for joining with a partner or for resolution.

Resolution of this pattern can come through intentional practice naming things that you appreciate about your partner and your relationship.

Stonewalling (hiding). Stonewalling is tuning out, ignoring, or sometimes fear-based shutting down. Instead: ask for a break, get grounded, and return.

Stonewalling (another form of hiding) might look like silence. Examples might be “the silent treatment,” walking away from an argument, or leaving a partner’s texts on “read.” Stonewalling is tuning the other person out, ignoring, or sometimes it’s a fear-based shutting down that occurs when a person doesn’t have emotional resources to engage (see window of tolerance resource).

Resolution often looks like taking a break. Let both partners get grounded and return to the conversation.

Defensiveness (a type of blame). Defensiveness escalates conflict and deflects shared responsibility. Instead, be curious about co-created dynamic.

Defensiveness (also a type of blame) may look like statements such as “it’s all your fault!” Defensiveness escalates conflict and deflects shared responsibility. It may inflate the problems that are present.

Resolution comes through becoming curious about the co-created dynamic and how both partners are participating


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Image description for screen readers:

Image 1: Text reads, “Communication patterns that destroy trust.” Yellow banner underneath with the text “Gottman’s 4 Horsemen of the apocalypse” on it.

Image 2: Drawing of a hooded person in all black with an angry expression on their face, sitting on top of a brown horse, who also has an angry expression. A bat is drawn in the corner of the image. Next to the drawing is a yellow banner with the word “Criticism” on it. Underneath in black text is “(also blame).” Below this is a speech bubble with the phrase written “You always do this!” At the bottom of the image is a box that says: “Talk about your feelings.”

Image 3: Drawing of a hooded person in all black with a sad expression on their face, sitting on top of a brown horse, who also has a sad expression. A bat is drawn next to this. To the right of the drawing is a yellow banner with the word “Contempt” on it. Underneath in black text is “(hiding).” Below this is more text that reads: “Contempt (often verbal abuse) offers NO opportunity for joining & resolution.” At the bottom of the image is a box that says: “Intentionally practice naming appreciation.”

Image 4: Drawing of a hooded person in all black holding an axe with a flat expression on their face, sitting on top of a brown horse, who also has a flat expression. To the right of the drawing is a yellow banner with the word “Stonewalling” on it. Underneath in black text is “(hiding).” Below this is a “read” text that says, “Are you mad?” with a responding text bubble with “…” inside. Underneath is more text that reads: “Stonewalling is tuning out, ignoring, or sometimes fear-based shutting down.” At the bottom of the image is a box that says: “Ask for a break. Get Grounded. Return.”

Image 5: Drawing of a hooded person in all black with a mad expression on their face, sitting on top of a brown horse, who also has a mad expression. To the left of the drawing is a yellow banner with the word “Defensiveness” on it. Underneath in black text is “(a type of blame).” Below this is a speech bubble that says “It’s all your fault!” Underneath is text that reads: “Defensiveness escalates conflict & deflects shared responsibility.” At the bottom of the image is a box that says: “Be curious about co-created dynamic.”

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