four horsemen of wrecked relationships

4 Horsemen in Relationships and How to Stop Them

How well can you recognize these four doomsday horsemen for relationships and stop them? They are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

So many of us start life with faulty tools for fixing relationship problems.

We think criticism can change unwanted behavior (but it fails because a partner feels judged).

Speaking in self defense seems like a good plan to calm someone down (but this often inflames anger even more).

If we feel ignored, we may make emotions louder, raising anger to contempt.

We may hide unwanted words and feelings behind a stone wall.

When couples argue, these four horsemen of the apocalypse can work their way in. They’re common, and they predict divorce if they hang around. Find out how to recognize and stop them.

The Four Horsemen According to Gottman

Dr. John Gottman, a renowned researcher of marriage and relationships, spent years studying patterns of emotional behavior between partners.

He dubbed criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling “the Four Horsemen” of the apocalypse for a relationship. That’s because their presence was one of the most reliable indicators he used to predict divorce with 90% accuracy for a given couple.

If unchecked, they can ruin a relationship. But they don’t have to.

How to Fight the Four Horsemen that Destroy Relationships

Once you recognize the Four Horsemen, you can better see them for what they are. They are false guides for riding out a rough patch in your relationship.

Here’s what they look like, and why they erode good will in relationships. And here are our 4 anti-horsemen to guide you to a happier place: Curiosity, Compassion, Vulnerability, and Responsiveness


Criticism attacks a partner’s personality or habits. Unlike a complaint, which expresses your displeasure with a particular, identifiable action, criticism rejects another’s overall character.

Example: “You don’t care about the people in your life. You are so selfish!”

Try this tool: Curiosity

Why curiosity: Criticism does not turn attention to what you need or want. Neutral curiosity helps. What would happen if you explained your hurt, without placing blame on your partner?

Example: “I am overwhelmed by all these chores. I want your help, but you haven’t offered, and I don’t know what that means. I need to know you care about me. What is going on?”


Contempt is when one person makes fun of another out of spite. It resembles the behavior of a schoolyard bully.

Example: “Look at you! Shoving another piece of cake into your mouth. You look like a pig.”

Try this tool: Compassion

Why Compassion: Replace contempt with expressions of respect and concern for the other person or your relationship.

Example: “I see half the cake is gone. And you’re so quiet lately. I am wondering if you are okay. I’m worried about you.”


Defensiveness occurs as a way to avoid rejection and blame. Instead of apologizing or addressing the hurt and what happened, the accused tries excuses, changing the subject, or criticizing in return.

Example: “No, I didn’t have time to go to the supermarket! I’ve been working all day. Why didn’t you go? You had time to go out and buy that expensive bag without telling me!”

Try This Tool: Vulnerability

Why admit what you feel instead. Being vulnerable makes you emotionally present in a non-threatening way. Vulnerability presents a feeling straight up and simple — often giving you the best chance to connect.

Saying how your partner’s experience affects you makes your loved one feel seen and heard. An apology is a great way to let your vulnerability, empathy and concern to shine through.

Example: “I know we both work hard. Sometimes I’m too tired to be as thoughtful as I want to be. Next time I’ll tell you if I can’t make it to the store, or before I buy something expensive.”


Stonewalling can be an act of self-defense, or at times, hostility. It happens when one partner shuts down and either ignores the other person, or refuses to talk about a particular issue.  

Example: “Talk to me. Talk to me! Why do you just sit there? Wait, where are you going?”

Try This Tool: Responsiveness

Why responsiveness: Defeating stonewalling can be a challenge. When conflict implodes into silence, recognize each person needs to calm down so they can recognize and respond to the emotions that are there.

A person who is stonewalling may be in flight or freeze mode. We’re all born with these survival reflexes, and they change our body chemistry. When in fight, flee or freeze mode, the brain shuts down the parts we use to think and talk rationally. If you feel frozen and walled off, take at least 20 minutes for anger or strong emotions to subside.

When calmer, consider that most arguments are not really about the immediate issue. It’s not about the errands, chores, spending or your sex life. It’s about the question: “Are you there for me?”

If you feel pursued, most likely your pursuer feels important needs are going unmet. You may feel less need of a wall for protection if you can be more responsive to the disconnect itself.

Example: “Give me about half an hour to calm down. I care about us, but I need to cool off before I can talk about it.”

We Care More, Fight Less When We Know We Matter

We need to know we matter to our loved one. Psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson explains it this way:

Too often, what couples do not see is that most fights are really protests over emotional disconnection.

So many of us start life with faulty tools for handling our own emotions, let alone fixing a troubled relationship.

Learning new tools for emotional awareness takes dedication! Working with a licensed therapist can help — especially a therapist trained in Emotionally Focused therapy (EFT). This training helps couples develop tools for noticing disconnection, and offering emotional connection. Disconnection is fixable!

Seeing our own need for connection in our relationship is a great first step. When you notice one of the Four Horsemen moving into your emotional world, you can learn to steer away.

Each partner needs to know the relationship is important to the other. As a couple, you can find new ways to show it. The better you can see and respond to the deeper needs in each other, the happier and smoother your relationship will be.

Learn more about the big picture of emotional connection in Creating Connection workshop at Mount Vernon Family Therapy. Get workshop details by email — with no obligation to sign up.