Four Horseman of the Apocalypse in Relationship Communication

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Dr. John Gottman’s decades of research on couples found that The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse are the 4 BIG communication errors partners make.  They are the #1 predictor of divorce…over infidelity or domestic violence.  They are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.  Let us take a closer look at each one. 

Criticism.  You have become critical of your partner when you verbally attack your partner’s personality or character.  Anytime you say “you are…” (followed by a negative adjective) it is a critical, finger pointing statement.  When you use the words “always” or “never”, you are also being critical.  Women are most often guilty of this horseman.  An example of criticism would be:   “You are always late”.  The antidote is to use a soft start up that describes your own feelings, the event and your needs, not your partner’s.  Here is a much better complaint:  I feel anxious when I do not leave the house on time.  I need everyone to start getting ready to leave for dinner at Patty and Jack’s home 15 minutes earlier.

Contempt.  This happens when you attack your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse him or her.  This is a condescending assault on your partner’s character.  Think of it as criticism + belligerence or criticism on steroids.  Contempt can include body language such as eye-rolling, finger pointing, hand on the hip, etc.  Contempt can also include sarcasm and passive aggressive comments.  Women are most often guilty of this horseman and it is THE number 1 predictor of divorce!  An example of contempt would be:  “You are always late, you lazy jerk”.  The antidotes are to use a soft start up that describes your own feelings, the event and your needs (not our partner’s) and to build a culture of fondness, admiration and respect.  It is much harder to be contemptuous with someone you are genuinely fond of.

Defensiveness.  This is the response to feeling criticized by your partner or perceiving contemptuous statements.  It is a way of changing the topic and viewing yourself as the victim in efforts to ward off a perceived attack (criticism or contempt) and reverse blame.  Men are more often guilty of this horseman.  The antidote is to simply take responsibility and own it.  When you walk in the door and your partner says “you are 5 minutes late”.  Don’t blame the last meeting of the day, the traffic, the train, etc.  Just own it with “yep, you are right, I was 5 minutes late”.  That might just shock your partner.

Stonewalling.  This refers to withdrawing from a relationship (either emotionally or physically) as a way to avoid conflict in efforts to convey disapproval, distance and/or separation.  It is commonly referred to as the cold shoulder and this poison can go on for days.  It is the response to feeling flooded with usually anger, anxiety and/or doom and gloom thinking (“here she goes again”).  Men are more guilty of stonewalling.  The antidote is to do self-soothing.  Simply call a timeout and do therapeutic deep breathing through your nose only.  Your time out can be as long as 1 minute per year old you are.  So the good news about being 60 years old is that you get a 60 minute time out.  After your time out, you MUST return to the conflict and give it another try.  Anything less is stonewalling again!

Now that you have just graduated from Horsemen 101, which horsemen are you guilty of?


Gottman, J. M. & Silver, N. (2015).  The seven principles for making marriage work:  A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert (2nd ed.).  New York:  Harmony Books.