EducationFour Scary Things To Look Out For On Halloween

Craig Toonder, MFT. Oakland Couples Counseling

Four Scary Things To Look Out For On Halloween

On this day of ghosts and goblins I thought I’d highlight John Gottman’s Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. These four little demons will haunt a relationship, and if allowed to run amuck, could lead to ill feelings, contribute to susceptibility to illness, and are one of the main predictors for divorce.



Dan Wile tells us, “Choosing someone means choosing a set of perpetual problems.” While we all have complaints about our partners, criticism is a different monster. Criticisms (through words, tones or facial expressions) are more than just complaints about something we don’t like; they sink their claws into the partner’s character or personality. They give our partner the impression that he or she is inadequate. Criticism invites defensiveness or withdrawal.

Antidote: Softness, Vulnerability, Requests.
If you find yourself being critical you are probably being harsh. Take a minute to slow down and soften your body, voice, and words. See if you are making things personal or taking things personal. Allow yourself to feel the deeper, scarier feelings at the root of problem. Learn to share those feelings. If you hear your partner being critical, look for the kernel of truth in what your partner is trying to convey. See if you both can shift the criticism into a reasonable request from that softer more vulnerable place.


Criticism: “You always leave a mess in the kitchen. Why can’t you ever think to clean after for yourself.”

Antidote: “The dirty dishes in the kitchen are bothering me right now. I’m feeling like you don’t care about how that effects me again. Could you please clean them soon?”



Contempt is one step up from criticism. Contempt can take the form of sarcasm, mockery, cynicism, name-­‐calling, mean spirited jokes, or talking down to one’s partner. It is one of the more scary and hurtful of the expressions that can show up on our faces. It conveys a message of disgust.

Antidote: Appreciation and Respect.
If you are feeling contemptuous, stop what you are doing and admit it. Remind yourself that the person you are talking to is someone you love. Respect is a choice and so is violence. Commit to protecting your relationship.


Antidote: “I’m really frustrated and feeling a lot of contempt right now. I want to treat you with respect, but I don’t know how to get this conversation on track again. Can we slow this down and figure out how to work on this like a team again?”



While it is understandable that people become defensive when they feel judged or attacked, defensiveness is just as poisonous to the relationship as criticism. At best, defensiveness feels dismissive. Often it is a form of blame or counter-­‐attack. “It’s not me, it’s you.” Either way, defensiveness fails to resolve anything. Instead it pokes back at the beast inviting further rage and carnage into the relationship.

Antidote: Responsibility.

If you catch yourself feeling defensive, take a moment to center and find the kernel of truth in your partner’s complaint. If you catch your partner being defensive, back off and ask him or her if he or she feels attacked, unfairly judged, or criticized. Assure him or her that their character is not at stake and try to restate your complaint in a softer manner. You may also want to search your own feelings and needs around your complaint and share them in a way that makes your partner feel compelled to come to your side.


Criticism: “You’re driving like a maniac.”

Defensiveness: “Well maybe if you could manage to get out of the house on time I wouldn’t have to drive so fast.”

Antidote: “You’re right. I am driving to fast. I’m sorry if I’ve scared you. I’m just really frustrated that we aren’t going to make it there on time and don’t know how to talk to you about it.”



Stonewalling, whether it be through short answers, non-­‐disclosure, becoming cold and uncaring, ignoring, or physically leaving, is a removal of one’s self from the relationship. It is becoming a ghost or the walking dead to one’s partner. While the intention is to avoid pain and frustration, it will only lead to further conflict down a dark and barren road. For stonewalling sends a message of, “I don’t care about you or your feelings.” This is a perfect invocation for further criticism and contempt.

Antidote: Turning Towards, Facing Fear, and Making a Stand for the Relationship.
If you find yourself pulling away, take a moment to reconnect with your commitment to the relationship. Examine your fears. Often turning towards an angry critical partner for resolution feels counter-­‐intuitive, but it’s what need to be done. Let your partner know his or her feelings are important to you and you are committed to understanding them (stand up for him or her). Simultaneously, let your partner know what about his or her communication doesn’t feel good to you (stand up for yourself.) By holding onto both, you stand up for your relationship.


Antidote: “I get that your upset and that this issue is important to you. I want to talk to you about it because you are important to me. I need you to see that it’s hard for me to listen when you talk to me that way.”


Happy Halloween, Everyone!

For more information on Gottman’s Four Horseman read:
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman