By: Sarha Machamer, LMFTA
Many couples seek couples therapy for communication problems, infidelity, transitioning from one life stage to another, lack of intimacy, unevenly shared workload, feeling disconnected, and many other reasons. Many times couples seek therapy as a last straw for a marriage. You feel you have reached the very end of your rope. You feel mentally burned out, exhausted, and barely willing to see if there is any way for your relationship to move forward. At this point, you are coming into therapy at your breaking point.
I’m sure you’re thinking my next statement is that you should come to therapy before you reach this point. Many times these points in our relationship catch up to us faster than we expect. This is why most professionals believe that therapy should be an important part of your relationship even when you believe you don’t need it. This is one aspect that is true, but in other ways, we can’t always be proactive. There is never a perfect time to seek therapy.
The real question is………
What are the signs that I should start seeking out help in our relationship?
Are there even signs before infidelity or reaching that breaking point?
Yes, there can be signs, and being self-aware of your role in the relationship can be a pivotal turning point. The Gottman Institute, A Research-Based Approach To Relationships came up with a great way to understand the conflict in a relationship and that comes down to The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The four horsemen come as criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Even though these do appear in healthy relationships, they appear very seldomly, and the couple is actively working towards fixing the issue. It’s important to remember when you identify the role you take in your relationship, you’re not calling out your partner.
- Criticism is not where you express your hurt feelings to your partner about something they did nor is it trying to offer a critique. It is attacking their core character of who they are as a person. It is important to understand how to express how you feel versus criticizing your loved one.
- Defensiveness is one horseman I see a lot of in the therapy room because it is a way an individual protects themself from criticism. Your partner can feel like you are never able to be accountable for your actions. It leaves your partner feeling like you don’t care what they have to say and feel invalidated.
- Contempt is very harsh when it comes to communication with your partner. This horseman is one Gottman depicts as being truly “mean”. I picture this one as being bullying and their main target is to make you feel worthless or hated.
- Stonewalling is when you shut down and stop responding to your partner. This mostly happens from contempt. Instead of responding to how you feel, it is easier to just put up your walls. Stonewalling is a defense mechanism that helps you “get out”, but quickly can become a bad habit.
If you notice that your partner and yourself get into disagreements and the four horsemen are present it would be important to step back and look at your role. The first step is to work on your self-awareness and what steps you can take to help change the unhealthy argument into a healthy one. Take time to listen to your partner, validate, and collaborate on a solution together. Couples therapy isn’t only for clients in a relationship crisis, but also here as a stepping stone to learning new ways to improve your relationship. What is standing in your way, preventing you from moving forward towards being a happier couple?
Lisitsa, E. (2022, June 16). The Four Horsemen: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, &
stonewalling. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved July 4, 2022, from