In an article about the four horsemen that spell doom for relationships, a couple that may be fighting

John Gottman Breaks Down the ‘Four Horsemen’ That Ruin Relationships

The psychologist identifies four different behaviors that can spell doom for any couple.
June 28, 2020
7 mins read

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are symbolic figures that appear in the Book of Revelation of the Christian Bible; they comprise the red horse of Conquest, the white horse of War, the black horse of Famine and the pale horse of Death. Each horse and its rider represents a disaster that will occur before the second coming of Jesus Christ.

American psychologist and relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman defined his own “four horsemen.” These behaviors are the predictors of divorce or breakups, and create conflict in any relationship. To counteract these devastators, it is important to be able to first identify the characteristics in yourself and your relationships.

1. Criticism

The first of the four horsemen is criticism, or the act of judging something based on its faults; it can disastrously impact a relationship. Criticism differs from constructive critiques or voicing complaints because criticism is not based on a specific thing someone has done, but rather on one’s character. Criticism targets the personality of the other party, making the person feel attacked, causing them to immediately become defensive, allowing another horseman to enter. An example of criticism is, “You never listen to me.”

The remedy: 

When approaching issues, avoid adverbs that indicate frequency such as “always” and “never,” which are oftentimes exaggerations and suggest a negative characteristic of the other person. Steer away from “you” statements that can make the other party feel threatened and berated. Instead, express the problem in terms of your own feelings using “I” and “me” statements. For example, instead of saying, “You never listen to me,” say, “I don’t feel heard right now.”

Gottman said,“94% of the time, the way a discussion starts determines the way it will end.” Begin the discourse with a “soft start up,” a much gentler approach to an issue, by describing the situation politely and calmly. Keep body language neutral and convey your message clearly so that your partner understands and the ensuing conversation is just that, a conversation — much more productive than a heated fight.

2. Contempt

Communicating with contempt, or the feelings of disgust and anger, is entirely disrespectful and degrades the other person. Contempt includes name-calling, sarcasm, ridicule, passive aggression and negative body language such as mimicking and eye-rolling. Contempt creates a power dynamic and an atmosphere of superiority of one person over the other, making the recipient feel worthless. According to Gottman, contempt is the most destructive behavior and greatest predictor of a breakup or divorce among the four horsemen. An example of contempt is, “You didn’t vacuum the house? Wow, guess I have to do everything because you’re too lazy.”

The remedy:

Cut out name-calling completely; it only escalates the conflict and can impact the other person well beyond an apology. To avoid contempt, it is necessary to limit negative feelings toward the other person by instead fostering positivity and appreciation. Gottman’s “magic ratio” is 5:1; five positive interactions for every negative experience. Building an atmosphere of gratitude is significant in relationships; regularly expressing appreciation for the little and big things they do can go a long way.

The more positivity and respect, the less room there is for feelings of contempt. A better way to communicate the problem would be, “I know you’re busy but would you mind vacuuming the house when you get a chance? I’d appreciate it.” This statement has more of a “soft start up” because it begins with an awareness of the other person’s obligations and it does not tear the other person down by assuming a personality flaw.


3. Defensiveness

Defensiveness, or the quality of using protective behavior to avoid criticism, is an unhealthy method of conflict management. Defensiveness includes making excuses, claiming innocence and not accepting responsibility for actions. If someone is feeling attacked by criticism, it is natural that they may try to defend themselves with an explanation; however, this reaction oftentimes increases the problem because it is a way of deflecting blame back to the critic.

A defensive reaction can be perceived as that person not taking the critic’s perspective seriously. Then, the instigator will not back down and the problem will go unsolved or worsen. An example of defensiveness is one person asking, “Did you cut up the onions for dinner?” and the other person responding, “No, I had work today and had to run some errands after my shift. You know my schedule. You should have cut them when you got home.”

The remedy: 

Avoiding defensiveness begins with admission of faults and acceptance of responsibility. Acknowledging your role in the situation shows that you care about the feelings and concerns of the other party and listen to their needs. While it is easy to feel defensive if the other person is bringing up an issue as criticism rather than as a constructive critique, realize that a defensive response will only escalate the problem further if they are already upset. A more appropriate response to the question would be, “That’s my fault; I forgot to cut up the onions. I’ll start on them right now.” The answer does not shift blame onto the other party, admits a wrong and seeks to correct the mistake, mitigating the conflict and letting the other person know their concerns are both heard and valid.

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling, or a refusal to communicate, is the last of the four horsemen in Gottman’s analogy; it is when an individual shuts down completely during a fight and stops interacting. They may either stop responding, turn away and distract themselves with something else or physically leave the space with the other person. Gottman explained that stonewalling is often an effect of the first three horsemen, causing the individual to feel flooded when arguments spiral out of control. Stonewalling during a conflict can appear as though the person does not care to work it out, but typically it is the person’s attempt at calming down when overwhelmed.

The remedy: 

Because stonewalling results from emotional flooding and feeling overwhelmed, an effective solution is pausing the argument. If the discussion continues, the stonewaller may continue to disengage and hold in their feelings or they will eventually explode and inflame the fight further, neither resulting in an effective discussion or conflict resolution. Instead, express to your partner that you are overwhelmed and ask to take a break to calm down. Relax a bit by reading, going for a run or anything that is distracting. During the timeout, distract yourself to avoid negative thoughts such as, “I’m done,” or “I don’t have to put up with this,” that will only make you feel angrier. Most importantly, come back to the discussion after about 20 minutes. Don’t leave the problem hanging or sweep it under the rug; to solve the issue, it is necessary to finish the argument.

Sarah Gudenau, Oakland University

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Sarah Gudenau

Oakland University

I am a second-year student with a junior class standing pursuing a B.A. in journalism with minors in Spanish language and digital media production at Oakland University.

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