The Four Horsemen


The Four Horsemen

John Gottman, Ph.D. is a leader in the marriage counseling world. He has been researching couples and how they interact for decades. His research has brought a wealth of knowledge to relationships and counseling practices. One of his well known areas of research is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. This is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament which he now uses to depict communication styles that, according to his research, can predict the end of a relationship.

So what do they each entail? We will go through these but additionally, here's a guide

1. Criticism

There is a big difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint addresses a specific action in which a person failed; whereas a criticism is more global and it becomes an attack on your partner’s character and/or personality. Criticism ups the ante by throwing in blame and assumptions. A statement that turns a complaint into a criticism is basically asking “what is wrong with you?” We can often admit that there is a legit complaint to be made but the problem is that even if we begin with just a complaint it quickly escalates into a criticism.  

The Antidote: A Gentle Start-up

Complain without blame by using “I” statements with a positive need. Do not use “you” statements with negative judgments.

Ask yourself two questions:  1. What emotions do I feel? 2. What do I need from my partner? Behind every complaint, there typically is a wish or longing so it’s to articulate that.

Criticism becomes a problem when its pervasive in your relationship because it will pave the way for the other three horsemen. So allow your partner the room to make an attempt to repair. All couples fight, but you must learn how to fight better.

2. Contempt

Gottman says that this is the worst out of the four horsemen. It is poisonous because it conveys disgust and it has the most negative behavior. Types of contempt are sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. Gottman says that this is the number one predictor of divorce. Essentially what contempt is saying is, “I am better than you and you are lesser than me.” This then leads to further, more hurtful, conflict rather than reconciliation. Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about your partner.

The Antidote: Describe your feelings and needs; fondness and admiration

In the short term, describe your feelings and needs rather than “you” statements. This can turn conflict into positive growth.

Here’s an example, “it is important for me to be on time. Can you help me with that?”

For the long-term, you will want to build a culture of fondness and admiration in your relationship. But this takes time, it will not happen overnight. There are many exercises and changes you can implement in your relationship to create this culture. First, you will want to begin by engaging in small positive gestures every day that express appreciation, kindness, support, and love. This can be: a 6-second kiss, 30-second hug, take five minutes to thank each other, and/or have a stress-reducing conversation. To help reconnect, start talking about past happy moments in your relationship or some tough times you got through to build confidence in your relationship. These things are not difficult but they often dwindle over time because of conflict, resentment, simple absentmindedness, or taking one another for granted due to life’s many distractions but it can be done, even if you think the positive feelings are buried deep under all the conflicts. Fondness and admiration will create a sense of “we-ness” and solidarity as a couple to keep you feeling connected.


3. Defensiveness

It can make sense many times to want to defend ourselves to our partner but research shows this approach rarely has the desired effect. Typically the attacking spouse does not back down or apologize because when we defend ourselves we are really saying, “the problem is not me, it is you!” The defensive spouse doesn’t take responsibility for their part in the situation so the conflict does not get resolved, it gets escalated allowing room for criticism and contempt to show their ugly face, which is why defensiveness is so deadly.

The Antidote: Accept responsibility for your role in the situation.

Accepting your part in the situation helps to create a space for a conversation to happen rather than conflict. This helps build a team mentality and enables you to work through a problem together rather than against one another. Also, this shows you have an interest in your partner’s feelings and not just about proving yourself right.

4. Stonewalling

This is the last of the four horsemen because it only comes after the previous three have been consistently present for some time. This is where the partner disengages, tunes out and turns away because they are emotionally shutting down, feeling overwhelmed and physiologically flooded. well-known any participation in the argument. The person who is stonewalling is literally cut off from the interaction and possibly even doing something else like reading the newspaper, scrolling their phone, or walking away completely because this is the out that they have now learned. The partner who is pursuing the argument can get to a point of checking out as well due to the frustration experienced by trying to engage with someone who is stonewalling.

The Antidote: STOP! and self-soothe.

In order to break this horseman, you must stop the behavior. In order to do so, you need to learn to self-soothe. Because the person is flooded (physiological response to emotions such as increased heart rate, the stress hormone released into the bloodstream, and even the fight or flight response) they need to take a break and self-soothe for at least twenty minutes to get themselves back into a calm state.

For you to be successful in stopping the stonewall behavior it is best to come up with a neutral signal, word, or phrase that indicates to your partner that you need a break. Once you have that break you will need to learn how to soothe yourself. Ways to do this include:

  • Imagine a place that is calm or happy

  • Practice focusing on your breathe

  • Tense and relax your muscles from your head to your toes (progressive relaxation)

  • Spend your time doing something soothing or relaxing for you (reading a book, taking a walk, listening to music)

Gottman found that stonewalling is found to occur more in men than women and when found in women that were a greater predictor for divorce.

All four horsemen can and will wreak havoc on your relationship and potential be the demise of your marriage if they are not changed. Hopefully, this blog post helps you to pinpoint where you might fall short and some antidotes to begin implementing. If feel you need more assistance with this, reach out and seek the help you need. If you are unsure if you need help with the Four Horsemen, you can click here to take a quick quiz to find out.