Nontoxic communication is all about fostering an environment where both partners can express their thoughts, feelings, and needs without fear of judgment or criticism. It’s about creating a safe space where both partners feel heard, seen, and understood.

According to Dr. John Gottman, a leading expert in couples therapy, nontoxic communication means that you and your partner avoid “The Four Horsemen Toxic Communication Styles.” These four toxic communication styles include criticizing, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. 

Instead, you should listen to each other, express empathy, and validate each other’s perspectives. Later in this article, you will be provided with strategies to do so. 

The Four Horsemen Toxic Communication Styles

An article from the Gottman Institute declares, “Being able to identify the Four Horsemen in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them and replacing them with healthy, productive communication patterns.” 

The article continues to explain the symbolism, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. We use this metaphor to describe communication styles that, according to our research, can predict the end of a relationship.”

Let’s get into the nitty gritty of The Four Horsemen Toxic Communication Styles.

      1. Criticism

    Criticism attacks your partner’s character, unlike a complaint that addresses a specific issue. It’s crucial to distinguish between the two. Although being critical doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed, it can lead to other destructive ‘horsemen.’ It makes the victim feel hurt, rejected, and can cause an escalating pattern towards contempt.

    Examples from The Gottman Institute:

        • Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”

        • Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish. You never think of others! You never think of me!”

          1. Contempt

        The second ‘horseman’ is contempt, which involves treating your partner with disrespect and using sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, and mocking body language like eye-rolling. Contempt is more severe than criticism, as it assumes moral superiority over your partner and makes them feel worthless. Contempt is fueled by long-held negative thoughts about your partner and is “the single greatest predictor of divorce. It must be eliminated.”

        Examples from The Gottman Institute:

            • “You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic video games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid. Could you be any more pathetic?” 

              1. Defensiveness

            The third ‘horseman’ is defensiveness, which is often a response to criticism. It is an ineffective strategy that typically involves making excuses and playing the victim, rather than taking responsibility for mistakes. A non-defensive response involves admitting fault, accepting responsibility, and understanding your partner’s perspective. Defensiveness can escalate conflicts and prevent healthy conflict management.

            Examples from The Gottman Institute:

                • Question: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”

                • Defensive response: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact, you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”

                  1. Stonewalling

                The fourth ‘horseman’ is stonewalling, which occurs when a person withdraws from a conversation, shuts down, and stops responding to their partner, usually in response to contempt. Stonewalling can become a habit and is a result of feeling physiologically flooded. To stop stonewalling, taking a break is suggested to calm down before resuming the conversation. A common example might be shutting down or the silent treatment. 

                Fight off The Four Horsemen

                According to the Gottman Institute, “research shows that it’s not the appearance of conflict, but rather how it’s managed that predicts the success or failure of a relationship. We say ‘manage’ conflict rather than ‘resolve,’ because relationship conflict is natural and has functional, positive aspects that provide opportunities for growth and understanding.”

                There are so-called ‘antidotes’ to The Four Horsemen, and knowing how and when to use them can be an incredible tool to add to your relationship toolkit. 

                    1. Reframing Criticism

                  Use “I statements” to do what is called a “gentle start-up.” Start phrases with your feelings and needs rather than statements about the other person.

                  Examples from The Gottman Institute:

                      • Criticism: “You always talk about yourself. Why are you always so selfish?”

                      • Antidote: “I’m feeling left out of our talk tonight and I need to vent. Can we please talk about my day?”

                        1. Attitude of Gratitude

                      “Contempt shows up in statements that come from a position of moral superiority,” says the Institute, to which the antidote is building a “culture of appreciation and respect” with your partner: “regularly express appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner, you’ll create a positive perspective in your relationship that acts as a buffer for negative feelings. The more positive you feel, the less likely that you’ll feel or express contempt!”

                      Examples from The Gottman Institute:

                          • Contempt: “You forgot to load the dishwasher again? Ugh. You are so incredibly lazy.” (Rolls eyes.)

                          • Antidote: “I understand that you’ve been busy lately, but could you please remember to load the dishwasher when I work late? I’d appreciate it.”

                            1. Stop playing the blame game

                          “Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand,” offers the Institute, but really “Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner.”
                          The solution? Take responsibility for your shortcomings/actions/etc. This will not only enable communication but keep the conflict from escalating. 

                          Examples from The Gottman Institute:

                              • Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault that we’re going to be late. It’s your fault since you always get dressed at the last second.”

                              • Antidote: “I don’t like being late, but you’re right. We don’t always have to leave so early. I can be a little more flexible” and perhaps you might consider getting ready earlier.

                                1. Take a breather

                              According to research, the solution to stonewalling is to practice self-soothing. Studies showed that when couples were interrupted fifteen minutes into an argument and asked not to talk about their issue for thirty minutes and instead read magazines, participants’ “heart rates were significantly lower and their interaction was more positive and productive” when they resumed their discussion/argument. 

                              Examples from The Gottman Institute:

                                  • “Look, we’ve been through this over and over again. I’m tired of reminding you—”

                                • “Honey, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m feeling overwhelmed and I need to take a break. Can you give me twenty minutes and then we can talk?”

                                Why Employ These Techniques?

                                This type of communication is essential for married couples and long-term partnerships because it allows them to work through issues and conflicts in a way that is constructive rather than destructive. It also builds a strong foundation of trust, which is essential for maintaining a healthy and fulfilling relationship.

                                Other Tips for Cultivating Nontoxic Communication

                                Practice active listening

                                According to Dr. Harriet Lerner, a psychologist and the author of The Dance of Anger, “Active listening means paying full attention to what your partner is saying, without interrupting or getting defensive.” This means putting aside your own agenda and truly listening to your partner’s perspective.

                                Validate your partner’s perspective

                                According to Dr. Sue Johnson, a clinical psychologist and author of “Hold Me Tight,” “Validation means showing your partner that you understand and accept their perspective, even if you don’t agree with it.” This helps to create a sense of empathy and understanding between partners.

                                Remember that you are a team

                                More often than not, you might find that your argument is not a war between you and your partner, but rather it’s you and your partner against a conflict. You are a team and there is no “I” in team… unless you are using “I statements,” of course. 

                                Bring in a professional

                                There’s no shame in getting help. Consider relationship coaching or therapy. A counselor, coach, or therapist can help you in the process of developing communication skills as well as help you work through past and current conflicts. 

                                Practice makes progress

                                Vulnerability, communication, and relationship maintenance are skills that require practice. Like sports, practice will make your team stronger for the largest obstacles that lay ahead. 

                                This is why tools like the In Tune Couples Card Game are designed – to foster the meeting of minds. In Tune is a card game designed by therapists for couples; it was developed by crowdsourcing questions from leading sex, marriage, and relationship therapists and coaches. We’ve brought together the best minds to deepen your most intimate relationship. Start practicing in a way that is fun and designed to help you lay the foundation for nontoxic communication.

                                Looking to get to know your partner even more? Grab your honey and take our quiz to learn about your Erotic Blueprint Type here.


                                If you’re looking to strengthen your relationship, consider focusing on nontoxic communication. It may take some effort and practice, but the payoff is a stronger, more fulfilling relationship with your partner.

                                Written by:

                                Gillian ‘Gigi’ Singer, MPH

                                Board Certified Sexologist, Sexuality Educator, and Sex Ed Content Specialist