Harmful Interaction Patterns – which do you do and what can help?


Quick summary – Dr. John Gottman has done extensive research on the variables which affect a stable marriage (or committed relationship). He is able to predict with just over 90% accuracy if a couple will eventually divorce after as little as 5 minutes of observation. He isolated four interaction patterns (he calls them the 4 horsemen) which are potentially devastating to a relationship. The interaction patterns to work on are contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling.  Please note that we all engage in these interaction patterns… the harm is related to frequency, degree and the absence of reparation strategies and a firm relational foundation. You might not be aware that you are using any of these patterns… couples therapy can help increase your awareness of what interaction you tend to utilize (and why) and what you can do to improve the interactions in your relationship.

For more about Dr. Gottman you can visit – http://www.gottman.com/

Contempt – This is when a person displays distain, hatred, or disgust etc towards their partner. When someone is using contempt in an interaction he or she is attempting to belittle the person or to cause him or her psychological/emotional pain.

–         Behaviors include:

  • Personal insults (generally containing a generalization – “you are bad person” – “sure I’ll do that for you fatty.”
  • Sarcasm or hostile humor – “sure that will work because you are sooo good with money.” – “maybe we should call the restaurant and see if they will take a reservation for a dumbasses.”
  • mockery, commonly with body language – rolling of the eyes, laughing at a person for there mistake etc.


Stonewalling – this is intentionally ignoring a person or leaving the person without attempting a resolution (or offering a better time to work things out). The person often believes that they are helping by avoiding the conflict… the behavior leaves the other partner feeling alone, isolated, and helpless.

–         Behaviors include:

  • Leaving a conversation without informing the person – if and when you will come back – or why you are leaving the interaction (it is ok to say I need a minute to cool down I’ll be back in an hour).
  • Changing the subject – instead of listening to your partner you distract him/her with irrelevant subjects… the partner feels unheard and unimportant.
  • One word or emotionless answers – ex. “honey I am really concerned about our son… it hurts me that he’s acting up so much.” – response – “Fine” or “don’t worry about it.”


Criticism – This is the act of constantly judging and looking for fault in your partner. Criticism is an attack on the partner’s personality. This is the most confusing interaction as there is a thin line between informing your partner about your needs or opinions and criticizing your partner. Criticism involves judging a person while getting a need met involves judging a behavior. Ex. “You are a dirty person who never cleans up anything.” is a criticism.” “I would like it if you would please put your dishes away after you have used them.” is a way of getting a need met by directing the attention on a behavior.

–         Behaviors include:

  • Generalizations – “you always….”
  • Statements concerning a person and not a behavior – “you are a messy person.” instead of “you engage in this messy behavior.”
  • Looking for the bad instead of the good – the person will notice more bad things than good things. This is also extremely ineffective for changing behaviors. Always focusing your attention on faults or on the negative.
    • 5 – 1 rule (or 7 -1) – in order to change a behavior you should have five positive statements (reinforce what was done ‘correctly’ or in the right direction of the goal) to every one negative or corrective statement. Example: If someone is messy you should compliment 5 acts that were steps to improve messy behavior (thanks for cleaning your fork) for every one suggestion about how they behave messy (will you try to clean your fork after you use it).


Defensive – defensive is an act in which you essentially stop listening to your partner and start defending your subjective experience. When a person is being defensive they are not allowing themselves to be open to their partner’s individual opinion, thoughts or emotions. The interaction pattern serves to prove the other person is ‘wrong’ and their behavior serves as an attempt to avoid or defend from a perceived attack. The point is that most arguments are based on opinions – no one is right or wrong… therefore sometimes the only goal is to hear and to be heard by an open-minded and accepting partner.

–         Behaviors include:

  • Whining – “it is not fair.”
  • ‘No but’ or ‘yes but’ – “no but I had to because of the rain.”
  • Excuses – “I wouldn’t have done that if I had taken the class I wanted to take.”
  • Repeating yourself instead of listening.
  • Addressing a critique of a behavior with a critique of your own – “I might not do the dishes but you are the one wasting all our money on gasoline.”


Steps to interact well:

  • Appreciate that your partner has a right to his or her own beliefs and emotions.


  • Accept what your partner is saying … though you are not required to understand or to agree… “I accept that you see it that way though I still see it differently.”


  • Listen and try to care for your partner despite the fact that you have a difficult time with the subject.


  • Separate the subject from the person…he/she feels, behaves or thinks this way but the whole is greater (and more complicated) than the parts and I love him/her.


  • Remember that there is no resolution to around 70 -90% of all arguments as most arguments are based on individual perception or opinion.


  • Remind yourself that you love the person and it is perfectly fine to disagree.


  • Sometimes you need to agree to simply stop arguing… neither of you is right most of the time… as ‘right’ rarely exists.


  • Focus on behaviors and not on personalities – It is easier to behave differently than to ‘be’ differently.


  • Admit when you know that you are wrong… apologies beget apologies.


  • Reinforce repair attempts. Ex. if one of you says – “we’re just arguing for the sake of arguing I’m sorry.” thank them for healing the interaction.


  • Practice open-mindedness – “you may be right” “I want to understand you better”, ”I would like to see how you see it”


  • Self-awareness – know your role in the conflict … know what interaction pattern you tend to use… begin to explore how your interaction pattern is influencing your partners interaction pattern (stonewalling begets criticism as criticism begets stonewalling).

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

William Hambleton Bishop

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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