Looking for maladaptive communication patterns is a common form of assessment that therapists use (Long & Young, 2007). Based on John Gottman’s theory popularly known as the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”, the following subheadings are common communication problems that most couples experience or participate in. They include; criticism and complaint, defensiveness, contempt, and stone walling (Long & Young, 2007). When more than one of these communication problems are present in the relationship, then there is a very good chance the relationship will not survive (Halyard, 2008).

Criticism and Complaint

Criticism refers to one partner attacking or judging the other partner’s personality or character in a negative way. This often results in the partner who is criticized to withdraw from the conversation or to become emotionally distant from their critical partner. Complaint on the other hand is directed to specific behavior. The difference between a complaint and a criticism lays in the opening use of” “I or “you”. A criticism usually begins with the word “you” In contrast complaints will usually begin with the word “I” (Long & Young, 2007).


  • Criticism: “You should be finished with the laundry by now. You know that I hate being late like this.”
  • Complaint: “I wanted the laundry to be finished by now so that I can get to my appointment on time.”


Contempt refers to being insulting to the partner. Contempt attacks the partner’s sense of self whereby the underlying intent is to insult or emotionally abuse him/her. Typical contemptuous comments made by partners include insults and name calling, hostile humour, sarcasm or mockery as well as contemptuous body language and tone.?Example: “Look, you spilled the milk. You’re such an idiot!”


Defensiveness occurs when an individual who sees themselves as the victim attempts to block off a perceived attack. When partners are defensive they are not open to learning and are also not able to access the vulnerable feelings that may lay beneath their defensiveness. Some typical defensive responses include making excuses, cross-complaining, disagreeing and then cross-complaining, start off agreeing but end up disagreeing, repeating yourself without paying attention to what the other person is saying and whining. Examples of each are presented below:

  • Making excuses: external circumstances beyond your control forced you to act in a certain way? “It’s not my fault?”, “I didn’t?
  • Cross-complaining: “Meeting your partner’s complaint, or criticism with a complaint of your own, ignoring what your partner said”; “Yeah you make it sound like you never do that, you forget that you do it too and so I have to put up with it as well — it’s just so frustrating? why can’t you see how you do that?”
  • Disagreeing and then cross-complaining: “That’s not true, you’re the one who ?”
  • Start off agreeing but end up disagreeing: “It’s true that I don’t do that; but why should I; anyway how do you know I don’t do that? are you watching me every minute of the day? Of course I do it sometimes? but not all the time?”
  • Repeating yourself without paying attention to what the other person is saying: Partner 1 — “you just don’t care, no matter what I say you just don’t seem to care because you never listen.” Partner 2 — “I try to listen? because I do care? I really do care? but sometimes I just get too tired and I find it hard to keep concentrating? especially if I’ve had a hard day at work? I find it hard to stay focused? but that doesn’t mean I don’t care? because I really do and that doesn’t mean I don’t want to listen because I do? sometimes I’m just tired, that’s all.” Partner 1 “yeah, well I’m tired that you just don’t care? you just don’t care and I’m tired of that”.
  • Whining: “It’s not fair.”


Stonewalling is withdrawing from the relationship as a way of avoiding conflict. Partners may think they are trying to be “neutral” but stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation, disconnection, and/or smugness. Some typical stonewall responses are stony silence, monosyllabic mutterings, changing the subject or removing yourself physically. Stonewalling is considered to be the most “dangerous” of the four horsemen. Pervasive stonewalling leads to a pattern of avoidance and isolation (Walker, 2005).