Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we would like to continue The Four Horsemen series by providing you with a strong foundation of understanding before we go into further depth about each specific communication style. Consider today’s posting an overview of what is to come over the next four weeks.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. Dr. Gottman uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship.

The first horseman of the apocalypse is criticism. Criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint! The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack: it is an attack on your partner at the core. In effect, you are dismantling his or her whole being when you criticize.

  • Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”
  • Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish! You never think of others! You never think of me!”

If you find that you are your partner are critical of each other, don’t assume your relationship is doomed to fail. The problem with criticism is that, when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen. It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and often causes the perpetrator and victim to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity.

The second horseman is contempt. When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean – treating others with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.

“You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic computer games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid – try to be more pathetic…” 

In his research, Dr. Gottman found that couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.) than others, as their immune systems weaken! Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner – which come to a head in the perpetrator attacking the accused from a position of relative superiority. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce according to Dr. Gottman’s work. It must be eliminated!

The third horseman is defensiveness. We’ve all been defensive. This horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel accused unjustly, we fish for excuses so that our partner will back off. Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take them seriously, trying to get them to buy something that they don’t believe, that we are blowing them off.

  • She: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”
  • He: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”

He not only responds defensively, but turns the table and makes it her fault. A non-defensive response would have been:

“Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. Let me call them right now.” 

Although it is perfectly understandable for the male to defend himself in the example given above, this approach doesn’t have the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner.

The fourth horseman is stonewalling. Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction. In other words, stonewalling is when one person shuts down and closes himself/herself off from the other. It is a lack of responsiveness to your partner and the interaction between the two of you.  Rather than confronting the issues (which tend to accumulate!) with our partner, we make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a habit.

Being able to identify The Four Horsemen in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication patterns, you must replace them with healthy, productive ones. This Friday, we will introduce you to the antidotes!

Tip: Practice, practice, practice! Pay close attention the next time you find yourself engaged in a difficult conversation with your partner, a friend, or even with your children. See if you can spot any of The Four Horsemen, and try to observe their effects on the people involved.


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More in The Four Horsemen
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

  • DL

    Would you agree that there can be a very fine line between complaint and criticism? The example of criticism you gave above is rather narrow and evidently specific to something in the Partner B that has frustrated Partner A. It does not appear to be a global comment on their whole being…it was itself a complaint, if somewhat over the top because it was a long time coming. But WHAT is being said there might be essentially justified (because it may be true), just not its delivery. Fair comment?

    With you on the other three.

    • Jayna

      The difference between complaint and criticism, in my understanding, is complaint is specific to the situation and criticism is all-encompassing. So for the example given in the article, the person says “you’re just selfish! You never think of others! You never think of me!” None of those are phrased in a situationally specific way – they are phrased as comments on who the person is. If the person had instead said “You’re being selfish and not thinking of others, you did this without thinking of me”, then those would be situationally specific because they aren’t labeling the person as a whole.

      Other examples would be “You’re too sensitive” vs “You’re being too sensitive”, “Why are you this way?” vs “Why are you acting this way?”, or “This is just how you are” vs “This is how you’re being right now”.

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  • Pam emich

    Help! We both do this all the time!

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  • Clarivel

    Oh lord. I’m definitely stonewalling?

  • AVGOL

    I am interested in applying this to adult offspring/parent relationships. How do I approach a stonewalling parent as an independent adult. Parent must be hurting too.

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  • High420Lonesome

    That is not what the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is really all about but it does make some sense as I think that the four horsemen are living already among us!
    Take for instance…North Korea’s Kim Jong Un,his brutal dictatorship and the imprisonment of scoreless North Koreans and how he kills them which includes hunger and famine.
    Then there is Syria’s Bashar al Assad, the killings of Syrian opposition rebels by air bombardment, and using chemicals such as gassing them to death including children.
    Lets not forget Russia’s Vladimir Putin, he kills his people by exterminating them through assassinations process which includes those that are opposed to his regime including journalist and those that mysteriously disappear without a trace.
    And now the fourth horsemen which is the apprentice of the three for now, nobody knows for sure if he has already killed someone. But the reality of this is that he could have made a pact Satan.
    And this person is Donald Trump the horsemen that rides a pale horse as he cons people gropes women, has raped a 13 year old girl. Don’t pay any federal taxes and probably had the presidential elections rigged.
    For now he is waiting to take over the biggest deadliest killing machine ever known to mankind! The United States Armed Forces and will hold the codes to all nuclear bombs. This man will leave death and destruction in his legacy.

    • DerfelaCadarn

      cool story bro

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  • Carmelita Hilario

    Only the two of you can help yourselves. Why not turn around your usual habit in communicating with each other. Avoid hurting your partner as this will lead to hatred.

  • Nini Fire

    Nooooo! “You’re being selfish” is a judgment and label that will incite defensiveness. Not a good idea “It doesn’t seem like you’re considering what I want” would be a better idea.