The “Four Horsemen”: 4 Relationship Hazards to Watch



Written by: Daniel Boyle / Couples Communication / February 22nd, 2018

Doctors John and Julie Gottman are leading experts in research on relationships and marriage. One key concept developed in their work is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", a metaphor for characteristics or behaviours predictive of relationships on their way to failure.


The Gottman Institute's work has found that relationships in distress tend to progress from criticism into contempt, followed by defensiveness and lastly stonewalling. Let's examine what these four behaviours are, why they spell trouble, and how to avoid or prevent them.



The first of the four horsemen is criticism. Complaints and frustration are inevitable in any relationship. While it is important to deal with problems head-on, it can be challenging to find the right words to raise a grievance with a partner.

Complaints verge into criticism when they focus on a person, not on their behaviour. This may lead the target of criticism to feel attacked or disrespected, drawing attention away from the problem itself and onto the person. This may escalate further over time, leading to further weakening of a couple's communication.

Avoid "you" statements as these may suggest blame: "you always forget", "you never call me", "you're selfish". Instead, use "I statements" to clearly frame the problem and its effect on you, rather than focussing your frustrations on the other person. "You always forget our plans" is critical of a person. Worded as an I statement ("I feel frustrated when you forget our plans"), this puts your feelings first and helps to frame the problem more directly, avoiding personal criticism that may feel like an attack.



Following criticism is contempt. Negative thoughts about a partner, sometimes expressed as criticism, have simmered and now resurface as ridicule, mimicking, sarcasm or dismissive behaviours such as eye-rolling.

Avoid this at all costs! According to Dr. Gottman’s research, couples that demonstrate contempt fall ill more often; furthermore, contempt was found to be the greatest predictor of divorce. Be mindful of using hurtful statements, disrespectful tone and body language to gain leverage in a tense times, as this can signal contempt.

Instead, work to build a culture of appreciation within your relationship. Contempt can make a partner feel belittled, despised, or simply “less than”; counteract this with simple statements of appreciation or recognition to reaffirm your respect. These may come in the form of positive “I statements”, such as “I’m proud of the hard work you’ve been doing”, or “I love it when you help with dinner”.



What can one do when they feel criticized, attacked, or held in contempt? Whether the perceived attack was intentional or not, a person is likely to defend themselves, hoping the other will back off. Unfortunately, defensiveness does little to solve the problem, and once again may frame the issue at hand as a one-on-one battle, rather than focussing on the problem itself.

Defensiveness passes off blame to some external sources— or worse, back to the partner. It may signal that we don’t take a partner’s concerns seriously. While the intention may be to preserve one’s character or to explain where things went wrong, it can easily come across as shirking responsibility. This can be frustrating to the other, making the issue difficult to solve. “It’s not my fault! There’s nothing I can do!”

Instead, try to acknowledge the concern being raised. You may not feel that it is your responsibility, but perhaps your partner does; in order to avoid an endless and frustrating “blame game”, validate your partner’s concerns and stay focussed on the solution.

This may be challenging when a partner makes statements that seem overly critical, exaggerated, or blaming. Don’t take the bait! A helpful strategy to respond to criticism more assertively and avoid defensiveness is called “clouding”. With clouding, we can validate what the other has said without necessarily agreeing in full, when the original statement does not seem accurate.

Criticism: “You always make us late!”
Defensiveness: “I don’t always make us late! Maybe if you gave me more warning…”

This conversation has quickly turned to defensiveness, as the second person got caught up in the wording of the original complaint, losing focus of their part in the problem. They may have felt that their character or their responsibility was in question, and felt it necessary to justify their actions. Unfortunately, this is likely to escalate into an argument, leading to more negative feelings and an unlikely solution.

Criticism: “You always make us late!”
Clouding: “I do lose track of time sometimes. I’ll watch that.”

In this case, the second person has accepted their part of the problem, thereby validating their partner’s frustrations, helping to de-escalate the potential conflict. and immediately shifted focus to solving the problem.


When the negativity of criticism, contempt, and defensiveness have become too much to bear, one may decide to simply withdraw. While the first three signal an “explosive” response to building frustration or displeasure, this constitutes an “implosion” where the interaction or discussion simply cannot continue. One or both partners start to tune out, stop responding to texts or calls, act busy, or engage in obsessive behaviours. This goes along with a mounting physiological response, wherein heart rates have spiked and rational thought or conversation become increasingly difficult. When this response becomes a habit, it can be very difficult to move forward.

When frustrations have mounted to this degree, it is important to take a break to practice physiological self-soothing. In other words: call a time-out. Explain that you are feeling flooded and you need twenty minutes. During this break time, do something calming that will take your mind off the issue. Avoid dwelling on this issue and playing it out in your head in this time, and return to the discussion when your body has had a chance to relax from its agitated physiological state.

In Dr. Gottman’s research, couples were asked to take a break from talking about their issues for half an hour. In this time, they simply read magazines on their own. By the time they returned to talking about the issue, their heart rates were significantly lower and the ensuing discussions were more productive.

If you recognize any of these “horsemen” in your relationships, don’t panic! Acknowledge them, and start to plan and use strategies such as those described above to help remedy them.

Many couples, however, need some additional support to overcome these habits. Marriage and relationship education can be a critical tool to improve the communication culture in your relationships. Contact us today for a consultation.