When I draw upon John and Julie Gottman’s work in my couples work, I often discuss the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” that can arise between the couple that can damage, and possibly end, the relationship.  Today I’d like to examine these four horsemen, within both a couples’ relationship and within an individual.  These are four common patterns that can occur between couples, all of which are risk factors that need to be addressed to salvage the relationship.

1) Criticism:

There is a huge difference between a complaint and a criticism.  A complaint addresses a specific concrete behavior that you wish your partner can change.  A criticism is a more global attack on the partner’s character or personality.

“I’m frustrated that you didn’t empty the dishwasher tonight.  We agreed to take turns doing this.”

“Why are you so inconsiderate and forgetful?  I hate always having to do the chores around here!”

2) Contempt

Contempt is a larger, more expanded version of criticism.  It concerns the way in which something is expressed, usually through hostile humor or sarcasm. It is sometimes expressed through body language (e.g., eye rolling or sneering).  This is thought to be the most damaging of the four horsemen, as it conveys disgust for the partner.

3) Defensiveness

Contempt usually segues into defensiveness.  This horsemen can get both partners stuck, as it prevents both people from taking responsibility to set things right.

Partner 1: “You forgot to pay the credit card bill, and now we have to pay an overdue fee because you’re irresponsible.”

Partner 2: “It was your turn to pay the bill, not mine.”

Partner 1: “No it wasn’t!  You’re just irresponsible.”

Partner 2: “You’re the irresponsible one!  Last month we agreed you’d pay the bills.”

4) Stonewalling

This usually occurs when the couple is having a conversation, and one partner stops talking.  They completely remove themselves from the situation, emotionally, with the idea that they don’t want to make things worse.  However, usually what this does is just make the other partner more upset.  Stonewalling in and of itself is a very powerful and destructive position to take, as it can convey disgust and disapproval without outwardly expressing it.


In couples therapy, identifying the presence of these four horsemen is critical, as there is a way to address each and every one of them in a more productive fashion.


I also believe that, on an individual level, we can carry these horsemen around and use them with a variety of people in our lives (usually unknowingly).  On a bad day, we may be quick to criticize/label the person who cuts us off in traffic as an inconsiderate jerk (rather than they weren’t acting in a conscientious way in that very moment, but that likely doesn’t mean anything about their character at large).  Or we may stonewall people we’re frustrated with, whether it’s our boss or colleague, by not responding to texts or emails (i.e., “getting back” by passively not responding).  Ultimately, these behaviors only make us more frustrated and erode at our ability to tolerate stress.  Also, when we behave in these ways, we cannot get our needs met in a satisfying manner.

We all have our horsemen.  When we are able to look at our horsemen without judgment, but with curiosity, we are able to change them so we can lead more productive lives and have healthier relationships.