According to couples therapist Dr. John Gottman, the Four Horsemen, behavioral predictors of divorce or break-up, are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Their destructive nature earned them the name and reference to christian religion: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.1
How Were the Four Horsemen Determined?
In 1983, Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute designed a “love lab” where he observed how couples interacted and approached conflict. During his study, Gottman separated all couples into two groups: He called one group the masters of relationships; the other group was the disasters. The disasters of relationships had four behaviors in common, and he labeled these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Dr. Gottman conducted additional research in 1999 where he predicted divorce with 90% accuracy based on the first three minutes of a conversation.2 What he noticed was that couples who started their conflict conversation with criticism and elicited defensiveness in their partner ended up divorcing vs. couples who used gentle start ups or began their conversation expressing their feelings and needs.
The First Horseman: Criticism
Many couples begin to discuss conflicts or subjects with what Dr. Gottman calls a harsh start up, which is just another term for criticism. For example, “You are so cold to me, you only care about yourself.” It’s often easier to show how “smart” we are by pointing out our partners flaws than to express how we feel and what we need in that relationship.
It’s also easier to start a sentence with “you” than with “I.” It takes effort to think about how we actually feel in order to express our feelings to our partner and courage to be vulnerable.
The Antidote: Identify an Underlying Need
Whenever there is a complaint, it is usually because there is an unmet need. We complain because we’re missing something, so before we complain to our partners, let’s identify what our need is and why this situation bothers us.
The Second Horseman: Defensiveness
Criticism often leads to the second horseman, defensiveness. When we feel attacked, we feel the need to defend ourselves. Imagine what a conversation between a couple who is using criticism and defensiveness looks like; nothing gets resolved.
We cannot engage in a dialogue with our partners if we are angry. Learn how to take a break and how to ask for a break in the midst of an argument. It takes lots of practice but it is possible.
The Antidote: Take Responsibility
The antidote for defensiveness is taking responsibility, but how can you take responsibility if you feel you’re not at fault? This is where you have to make a conscious decision about what you’re hearing. Instead of engaging in defensiveness, decide to validate your partner’s feelings and ask what they need. Once you know their needs, perhaps you can take responsibility for not noticing them sooner.
The Third Horseman: Contempt
Contempt is when a spouse talks down to their partner, speaking from a place of superiority as if they know better. An example of contempt would be something along the lines of, “I am better than you.” In Gottman’s research, he concluded that contempt was the biggest destroyer and predictor of divorce and separation out of the Four Horsemen.
The Antidote: Love
The antidote to contempt is love. Talking to your partner with love and admiration will switch things around. Building a culture of appreciation will help you see how amazing your partner is. Moreover, using what Dr. Gottman calls a “gentle start-up” when bringing up conflict—expressing what you feel, and expressing your needs around the situation—will lead to a manageable conversation.
The Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling
Stonewalling is refusing to continue a conversation or argument with your partner. Sometimes, couples believe that avoiding questions or conflict is better than arguing. Nonetheless, not discussing the situation will lead to resentment. One partner might feel rejected, unloved, and not cared about. This may lead to the end of the relationship because there are no resolutions to disagreements or difficult situations.
Couples usually stonewall because they get “flooded” with emotion. They are too upset to respond and prefer not to say anything to avoid getting their partner even more angry, or sometimes because they feel that no matter what they say it won’t be taken into consideration.
The Antidote: Self-soothing
The antidote for stonewalling is to calm down and practice psychological self-soothing. Only when you are in a calm state will you be able to listen and hear what your partner is saying with empathy and love.
How to Break the Pattern of the Four Horsemen
It is hard to organize our thoughts when we are angry, so find a few minutes to calm down and feel calm before starting a conversation about a conflict or a conflicted situation. It takes a lot of practice to change our habits, so it can be helpful to find a marriage counselor to help you.
Here are ten ways to break the pattern of the Four Horsemen:
- Be responsive: listen, reflect, ask questions, and show interest in what you partner is saying
- Be attentive: respond to simple requests and provide your full attention
- Be kind: offer meaningful praise, compliments, appreciation, and expressions of affirmation
- Show affection: you can show affection through hugging, handholding, rubbing your partner’s shoulders, and kissing when greeting and parting ways. Verbally express your love, too
- Turn toward each other during times of conflict: when you deal with relationship conflict, use “I feel” vs. “You…”. Agree to followfair fighting rules, avoid yelling, name-calling, or weaponizing secrets, or vulnerabilities to hurt each other in the heat of the moment.
- Give each other space: autonomy lets you be the same people you were when you became attracted to each other in the first place
- Talk about sex: be willing to discuss, explore, and try new things to maintain the novelty
- Respect your partner’s boundaries: don’t try to change your partner or convince them to act in a way that isn’t aligned with their interests, needs, or values
- Commit to working on the growth: seek therapy early vs. waiting for a crisis to occur
- Engage in meaningful activities together: these can include date nights and spending time with each other’s friends and family
What Does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?
Signs of a healthy relationship include the ability to have good time together, mutual trust and transparency, authenticity, autonomy, and plenty of affection and intimacy.
How to Find a Couples Counselor
If you’re ready to find a therapist , start your search in an online directory. If you have a primary care provider, consider asking for their recommendations. Also, if you have friends or family who have seen a therapist, they might be able to recommend someone.
Final Thoughts on the Four Horsemen
Don’t let Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse affect your relationship. Every couple deserves to enjoy their time together. No one wants to spend their time fighting, life is too short for that. If you don’t know what to do, talk to an expert to guide you and make your relationship healthy and enjoyable.