The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for Relationships

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for Relationships

Dr. John Gottman, a renowned psychologist and researcher, has delved deep into the intricacies of successful relationships. One of his seminal contributions is the concept of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – four destructive communication patterns that he can use to predict divorce with frightening accuracy.

According to Gottman, the following four communication patterns are often an indicator of critical issues in the relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Criticism involves attacking your partner’s character or personality rather than addressing a specific behavior or action. Statements like “You always…” or “You never…” are common indicators of criticism. Over time, persistent criticism can erode self-esteem and create a hostile environment where both partners feel attacked and defensive.


Contempt takes criticism to a whole new level by adding an element of superiority and disdain. Eye-rolling, sarcasm, mockery, and name-calling are typical manifestations of contempt. This toxic behavior corrodes the foundation of respect within a relationship and fosters resentment, which can be incredibly damaging in the long term.


When confronted with criticism or contempt, it’s natural to want to defend oneself. However, defensiveness often serves to escalate conflicts rather than resolve them. It involves playing the victim, deflecting blame, or making excuses instead of taking responsibility for one’s actions. Over time, a pattern of defensiveness can create a cycle of blame and counter-blame, hindering effective communication and problem-solving.


As tensions mount and conflicts escalate, some individuals may resort to stonewalling – a complete withdrawal from the interaction. Stonewalling typically involves shutting down emotionally, giving the silent treatment, or physically leaving the conversation. While it may provide temporary relief from conflict, stonewalling is incredibly detrimental to the relationship’s health, as it shuts down communication and prevents resolution.

While the presence of these behaviors doesn’t necessarily spell the end of a relationship, Gottman’s research suggests that they are strong predictors of future relationship distress and dissolution if left unaddressed. So, what can couples do to combat the Four Horsemen and nurture a healthier, more fulfilling partnership?

First and foremost, awareness is key. Recognizing these destructive patterns in oneself and one’s partner is the crucial first step towards effecting change. Couples can benefit from practicing active listening, empathy, and constructive communication techniques to replace criticism with constructive feedback, contempt with appreciation, defensiveness with accountability, and stonewalling with active engagement.

Additionally, cultivating a culture of appreciation and admiration can serve as a powerful antidote to contempt. Making a conscious effort to express gratitude, acknowledge each other’s strengths, and celebrate successes can foster a sense of mutual respect and deepen emotional connection.

Seeking the guidance of a couples therapist or relationship counselor can also provide invaluable support in navigating conflicts and developing healthier communication patterns. Through counseling, couples can learn to recognize and address the underlying issues fueling the Four Horsemen, fostering greater understanding, empathy, and intimacy in their relationship.

With mindfulness, effort, and a willingness to communicate openly and honestly, couples can steer their relationships away from the brink of disaster and towards a brighter, more harmonious future. As Dr. Gottman himself puts it, “The Four Horsemen can be replaced by trust, empathy, acceptance, and intimacy.”



Verywell Mind, Four Predictors of Divorce and How to Cope

The Gottman Institute, The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling