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Helping a Troubled Relationship

Helping a Troubled Relationship
Helping a Troubled Relationship

The Four Indicators of a Troubled Relationship

These four indicators were named “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” by John and Julie Gottman. They represent four indicators of an unhealthy or struggling relationship. Generally, if one or more of these indicators are regularly present in your relationship, it’s a sign to focus on getting better at communicating.

Thankfully, research suggests there are ‘antidotes’ against each of these Horsemen. These are considered to be the most effective ways to combat each Horseman within your relationship.

An unhealthy or struggling relationship is likely the result of a breakdown in communication. These Horsemen and their antidotes can help you to understand where certain unhealthy behaviours are popping up in your communication style, and how to steer clear of a relationship apocalypse.

Indicators of an Unhealthy Relationship

  1. CRITICISM by verbally attacking personality or character.
  2. CONTEMPT by placing yourself above your partner with intent to dismiss or insult.
  3. DEFENSIVENESS by victimising yourself to ward off blame or perceived attacks.
  4. STONEWALLING by withdrawing communication to convey disapproval, distance, separation, and avoid conflict.

What Are the Antidotes that Make a Healthy Relationship?

  1. Instead of using criticism to express displeasure, use A GENTLE-START UP. Talk about feelings using “I” statements and express a positive need.
  2. Instead of showing contempt start showing APPRECIATION. Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and find things to appreciate.
  3. Instead of being defensive start taking RESPONSIBILTY. Accept your mistakes and offer an apology for any wrongdoing.
  4. Instead of stonewalling your partner let them know you need time for SELF-SOOTHING. Communicate you need to give yourself time to calm down or get into a more productive frame of mind in order to progress a difficult conversation.

A Gentle Start-Up

Instead of criticism like “You never ask about my day, do you even care?” or “You don’t make any effort. You’re so lazy!”

Use a gentle start-up as a way to open a conversation: “I feel upset that you don’t ask about my day. I like it when you ask and listen because it makes me feel important to you. I would love it if you would ask me how my day went when I get home from work.”

When using a gentle start-up to begin a conversation, structure it along these lines.

“I feel (specific emotion) about (topic you want to discuss). (Express WHY it makes you feel the specific emotion). (Express what you WOULD like instead.)”

Reframing your criticism in this way turns the conversation into a positive expression of your needs rather than an attack on your partner.


Contempt is viewed as the most dangerous of the Four Horseman as it is the most destructive to a relationship. Contemptuous displays will only lead to further conflict rather than rectifying a situation or problem. If contempt has snuck into your relationship, it’s important to take it seriously, and rebuild a culture of appreciation.

Take note if you or your partner express contempt with eye-rolling, dismissive body-language, sarcastic, hurtful, or demeaning replies, ridicule, or insult. And instead, start creating moments of appreciation.

Dealing with Resentment

Use the Gentle Start-Up method to reframe how you express needs and feelings before they term into long-simmering resentments that result in contempt and disgust.

“It hurt me that you forgot about tonight, because I felt really embarrassed being there by myself. This has become a pattern. How can we fix it?”

Rebuilding Appreciation

Create intentional moments of goodwill and respect like a goodnight kiss, a thank you, a small thoughtful gift, or a compliment.

Simple gestures like “Thank you for running the dishwasher” or “You have a really beautiful smile” can go a long way to repairing the damage that contempt can cause to a relationship.


Defensiveness is used as a way to ward off blame or to turn the conversation back around onto the other person. In the end, all that happens is that trust and security is lost, and the actual issue at hand isn’t discussed: “It’s not a big deal, don’t get so mad at me, I’ll just do it tomorrow, and you forgot to get dog food the other day!”

It’s important to take responsibility rather than avoiding it or entering into a tit-for-tat back and forth: “I’m sorry I forgot to do that, I can understand why you’re frustrated. I’ll do that now.”

Taking responsibility and accountability for the mistakes we make is an important step in building and maintaining trust in a relationship. An unhealthy or struggling relationship requires trust in order to allow repair to happen.


Stonewalling completely shuts down communication. It might look like walking away mid conversation, giving silent treatment, changing the topic, not answering questions, and avoiding the problem. Stonewalling often happens as a way for a partner to convey disapproval or annoyance without having to engage further in an uncomfortable conversation. It can also be the result of someone feeling overwhelmed and not knowing how to deal with those feelings effectively. Self-soothing is an important skill to have to be able to effectively discuss difficult topics.

With self-soothing, you learn to understand what you need to do to continue having a difficult discussion and communicate that to your partner.

“I’m feeling overwhelmed, and I need a break. Let’s come back to it in half an hour once I’ve got my thoughts in order again.”

The simple fact is that ignoring a difficult question or conversation won’t make it go away. Resentment and frustration will get built up, and boom! Apocalypse.

Build Better Communication Together

Repairing an unhealthy or struggling relationship and improving communication can be hard work. Both partners need to be working in good faith together towards the same outcome.

Communication and problem solving in a relationship only works when both parties are working with respect, empathy, and openness. Have some relationship ‘rules’ around how you are going to do this.

For example, agree to give each other the benefit of the doubt. If your partner upsets you, say to yourself “there must be something else going on because they wouldn’t deliberately hurt me.” Then ask your partner if they are okay and be open, empathetic, and silent as you listen to their story. Put your ‘Listening Hat’ on before you put your ‘Fix-it Hat’ on.

Also, think about reframing conflict into an opportunity for understanding – facing conflict this way presents an opportunity to get greater understanding of your partner, rather than fear of the conflict and difficult feelings. At the end of the day greater understanding helps us to know ourselves and our partners better.


BPsych (Hons), MPsych (Clin)

Julie Stanley is the director and a senior clinical psychologist at Choice Psychology. Though she no longer sees clients, Julie had a particular interest in couples therapy and relationship conflict, communication improvement, and trauma and PTSD.  If you need any support with these matters, please contact our friendly administration team and they can help you book in with one of our couple or family therapists.