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.

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.

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. Click here to learn about the antidotes.


The Marriage Minute is a new email newsletter from The Gottman Institute that will improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less. Over 40 years of research with thousands of couples has proven a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up below.


More in The Four Horsemen
The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling
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

      • Mary M. Valentine

        LOL!

    • Dale Poleman

      As I am a Christian man, I would ask you to pick up the book and actually read it. The four horsemen don’t come till the apocalypse. Also these are the “four horsemen” of relationships. Please read before you go posting

    • ram

      Oh seriously, the point is that there will be an apocalypse of the relationship if things don’t change when these are present. This wasn’t about all you wrote about. I agree awful things are going on, but topic, please.

    • Lansdude

      Since this was posted a year a ago, it is apparent that this person has Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS). The world is still here and maybe better for some and worse for others. TDS has affected many thousands, but most of the country is still fine. You can resume “normal” life.

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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.

    • Amanda Smith

      Actually, the best statement is” I would like to feel acknowledged or understood by you and to be alone or is me feeling invisible when this happens. The comment ” It doesnt seem like you’re considering what I want”, is actually an entitled way of telling or assuming another judgement, which is close to attacking and blaming the other. Which isn’t going to be a better idea for down regulating the conflict . The point I’d like to make is… no person can tell, make or shame another person and make them responsible for any others emotions. What, how, why a person is behaving in a terrible way is seperate from the person and more about their own problems and its absolutely PAINFUL to the one on the receiving end, no doubt. Thats why a person cant make you do something, feel something, say or react maliciously and be accountable for your own inner happiness and fulfillment, its youre own job to regulate and master YOU and your self-esteem and self worth vs allowing anyone to control the emotional state and wellbeing of your life. By setting healthy boundaries and have the consequences to back up the behavior violation when they are doing something to you AFTER setting up the personal boundary, its INCREDIBLY important to maintain that bc its a foundation for self respect and self worth. This gives you such an empowering and liberating sense of awareness for the future. No blaming, shaming , guilt or control will change the situation bc we are not them and thats why you take care of you first. I STATEMENTS …I FEEL HURT WHEN I CANT HAVE ANY CLOSENESS TO YOU VS I FEEL “YOU” HURT ME OR I FEEL HURT BECAUSE YOU DID NOT GIVE ME WHAT I WANT. ETC. It’s as you told someone ” Im sorry for saying that BUT if you weren’t so annoying, i wouldn’t have blown up. Hope thos helps.

  • Amanda Smith

    This is a form of manipulation and control. Telling someone their own emotional state is too SENSITIVE is not a true statement, its a form of invalidating their partner so they are not trying to see, gear or understand their partner and validate their experience. I know all about this. It wont be much longer before its full blown emotional abuse and then there will be escalating triggers that WILL erode the abused partner. .LOOK UP cognitive distortions and there are about 20 different tactics including this example and it shows how peoples minds are deeply distorting their perceptions and have really been STUCK with their limited beliefs about people,
    Themselves and their external workd. Take care. .

  • Ayiran

    In The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
    By mentioning “Apocalypse” does he mean the destruction and end of the world OR a situation in which a lot of people suffer and a lot of damage is done?

    • Ayiran

      any answers?

      • pipapaw

        Apocalypse meaning the destruction of the relationship.

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