top of page


Toxic communication patterns have the capacity to cause tremendous damage to our relationships — whether they be with our families, partners, friends, or co-workers — to the point where they can even end the relationship altogether. Collectively studied and labeled as “The Four Horsemen”, by Dr. John Gottman, these negative communication patterns consist of criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling, and are worth delving into in order to avoid slipping into their pitfalls.


Criticism is when an individual’s personality or some other general trait is attacked, instead of addressing the behavior that’s the source of discontent. Criticism is not the same as complaining; a complaint singles out a specific action of the wrongdoer that should be changed. An example of their difference is:

Criticism: “What’s wrong with you? You never do the dishes.”
Complaint: “I’m so tired, can you please help with the dishes.”

Criticism often leads to deflection, but more importantly, it fails to illustrate the relevant issue to the recipient of the criticism. It can also cause this recipient to feel self-conscious and unappreciated, further straining the relationship and undermining healthy attempts to compromise on a solution for the behavior.Approaching the person gently with the use of “I statements” is a healthy alternative This means identifying how you feel and expressing that, instead of how your partner is making a mistake or doing something wrong. Additionally, addressing the problem while both parties are calm is a condition that works to the benefit of both parties.


Defensiveness is a response to criticism and happens when a person feels unjustly accused, which leads them to vigorously defend themselves. They fail to understand the accuser’s point, and, therefore, make excuses, place all the blame on them and avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Defensiveness escalates the problem because instead of trying to address whatever the issue is, it results instead in an endless blame game. To prevent this, the recipient of a complaint should listen attentively to the accuser before answering, and work at becoming accountable of some portion of what sounds like an accusation. Taking responsibility for our wrongdoings is the only way to truly move forward in a relationship.

So for example: “Why don’t you want to spend time together?, a non-defensive answer would be: “I am sorry I have made you feel like I dont want to spend time with you. I don’t want that. I have been tired/working a lot, etc”


Contempt is the most destructive of ‘The Four Horsemen’ and is displayed when a person is treated disrespectfully, through the use of labeling. They can be ridiculed, name-called, mocked, degraded or humiliated as a response. It is a behavior that is used to abuse, demean, and undermine the other person intentionally. Instead of using such unproductive methods, the other party should meditate on what they are hearing, what they’re upset about and talk it out calmly and respectfully. They should make an effort to compliment the other person for their good traits, and normalize appreciating these, instead of only ridiculing them for every mistake they make. An example of a contemptuous phrase:

Contempt: “You’re so lazy; you never wash the dishes.”
Solution: “I’d really appreciate it if you could help me wash the dishes once in a while.”


Stonewalling is the initiation of the silent treatment and occurs when a person shuts down and fails to acknowledge what the other party is saying. It is mostly a result of contempt and happens when an argument overwhelms them. Not speaking, not making eye contact, storming off, changing the subject, using monosyllabic answers, and maintaining silence are methods a person can employ to stonewall. Usually, stonewalling is used in an attempt to calm the situation or for self-preservation, but in reality serves neither of these causes, and only leaves room for more misunderstandings. It brings out an “I don’t care” attitude which escalates the problem. To solve the issue, the parties involved should take a break from a conflict when they feel themselves overwhelmed by it. Meditation is also advised, and taking part in soothing activities such as reading, listening to music, yoga exercising, and taking a walk, etc.

Some other toxic communication patterns include: bottling up feelings to prevent a disagreement, jumping to conclusions, fault blaming, and general assumptions. Recognizing these toxic patterns enables one to work towards establishing a healthier relationship. Healthy relationships bring happiness all around and encourage both parties to understand each other and help each other in stressful situations in order to reduce the presence of conflict. Consulting a therapist could help you analyze the presence of these toxic patterns in your life and provide a better approach to solving their problems that arise out of them.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at 4 WAYS TO END AN ARGUMENT FOR A SUCCESSFUL RELATIONSHIP.

Your therapy friend,


If you would like to check out the health of your relationship, click the link below to get feedback and tips on how to enhance your connection.

17 views0 comments


bottom of page