- Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S, NCC
February 10, 2021
If the past year of COVID-19, polarizing politics, financial difficulty, uncertainty, and the confines of isolation have caused a strain on your relationship, you are not alone.
For centuries, human beings have struggled in anguish amid natural disasters, war, and disease. This past year’s pandemic and polarizing politics have also wreaked havoc on some relationships.
“The health and economic impacts of the current pandemic have been enormous and will be ongoing for a long time to come” (Stanley & Markman, 2020). “There are also challenges and negative effects on both individual well-being and intimate and family relationships.”
The coronavirus pandemic and politics have made cohabiting much more difficult for some. This article speaks to the unhealthy habits of couples in distress, while lending a hand to strengthen bonds.
Regardless of the stress that has infused disdain in a relationship, researchers have identified four unhealthy communication patterns that can predict the end of a relationship. Dr. John Gottman is the researcher and co-founder of The Gottman Institute. He, his wife, Julie, and team utilize the metaphor of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which describe conquest, war, hunger, and death to explain these unhealthy patterns. Gottman names the “four horsemen” of communication styles as: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. We will briefly explore the four horsemen here (Lisitsa, 2013):
Criticism – criticizing a partner is different than complaining or critiquing. “It is an attack on your partner at the core of their character…it makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt.”
Contempt – is the most dangerous of all horsemen. This style of communication includes treating “others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names, and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing...The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.”
Defensiveness – is a very common stance when someone is responding to criticism. “When we feel unjustly accused, we fish for excuses and play the innocent victim so that our partner will back off." However, it is a tactic that doesn’t work, and we don’t take responsibility for any mistake made.
Stonewalling – this happens when the listener withdrawals from the conversation without responding. “Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall can make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors." Stonewalling tends to send the message: “I don’t care.”
As common or as easy it is to fall into some of the communication quicksand of the four horsemen; it is necessary to avoid coming near the pit of despair in the first place. Gottman and Silver (1999) offer seven principles that can turn things around, which include:
Enhance your love maps – become more familiar with your partner, intimately by writing down information about your partner, such as important people in their life, important events, upcoming events, partner’s current stresses and worries, partner’s hopes and aspirations. Writing down one’s own successes, injuries and healing, emotional world, mission and legacy, and who you want to become, can help you each build a stronger love map.
Nurture your fondness and admiration – which can be cultivated by: a) listing things you appreciate about the partner, and sharing with each other; b) highlight the positive history and the love and great expectations that brought you both together; c) scheduling a daily share with each other of positive thoughts and tasks done for each other.
Turn toward each other and not away – staying connected in positively ways by interacting and building romance and connection, adding to the “emotional bank account” allowing for leeway during conflicts.
Let your partner influence you – being open to influence requires each person to let go of avoidant strategies like distancing, attacking, and defensiveness.
Solve your solvable problems – solving situations that are deemed solvable by trying something different than unresolved arguments, yelling, or the silent treatment. Use “I statements” to ensure one doesn’t judge, evaluate or criticize. Be clear, firm, gentle, and appreciative. Learn to make and receive repair attempts, soothe yourself and each other, compromise, and learn tolerance.
Overcoming gridlock – which occurs when people’s life dreams are not being addressed or respected by each other. This could be hopes, aspirations, wishes and core values such as: sense of freedom, experience of peace, unity with nature, exploration of self, justice, honor, unity with the past, healing, spirituality, etc. A healthy relationship respects and helps each other reach these dreams, not manipulate the other out of achieving this goal.
Creating shared meaning – finding meaning in togetherness beyond the joint tasks of daily life. This could include developing a family culture which gives shared meaning to a sense of togetherness. A discussion of core values can be used to further the shared meaning in a relationship.
When in doubt of how to communicate, talk quietly and calmly, identifying each partner’s underlying concerns (Pappas, 2020). “At any sign of escalating anger, both partners take a calming time-out.”
Remember the love of togetherness. Do make time for fun, adding even small periods of novel activities, or walks together in nature, which can also nurture a relationship and rekindle a spark.
Should either individual experience depression or anxiety, individual counseling can help. Online therapy is also available for couples who are struggling.
Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio and Kentucky adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth/Video visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor, with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached by emailing email@example.com, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting
Gottman, J., and Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Crown Publishers.
Three Rivers Press. New York, NY.
Lisitsa, E. (April 23, 2013). The four horsemen: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Pappas, S. (June 12, 2020). Four ways to strengthen couples’ relationships now. American Psychological
Stanley, S.M., and Markman, H. J. (2020). Helping couples in the shadow of COVID-19. Family Process.