The Four Horsemen of Relationship Apocalypse

by Kristin T.

January 28, 2024

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We probably all know by now that there’s no such thing as a perfect couple. All couples argue, disagree, and just downright annoy each other sometimes. Relationships take work, too, sometimes hard work. But that work should always feel worth it. So, what happens when a relationship starts to break down to the point where it seems like all you do is fight? When the work you put into your love starts to feel like a pointless chore? Learn how to keep an eye out for the dreaded “Four Horsemen” that can predict the end of a relationship…and how to fix things before they’re past the point of no return.

The biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse – Conquest (sometimes interpreted as Pestilence or Plague, but we’ve had enough of that lately), War, Famine , and Death – predict the end times in the new testament. Psychologist and renowned romantic relationship researcher John Gottman uses them as a metaphor to describe four communication styles which can lead to certain death of romantic relationships, too. Gottman says these four patterns of conflict communication – Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling – can be the harbingers of relationship doom.

Read on to learn more about these “four horsemen” to look out for if you fear your relationship may be about to crash & burn. Being able to identify these behaviors and feelings in your conflict discussions is a must if you want to work towards eliminating them and replacing them with healthy, constructive communication habits. To that end, we’ll also give you the suggested “antidotes” to each of the Four Horsemen – or how to nip these negative patterns in the bud before they go too far.

Criticism

The first horseman is Criticism, which can be much more insidious than it sounds. Truly criticizing your partner differs from offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues or events, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack on your partner at the core of their character. It’s important to recognize the difference between expressing a complaint and criticizing. Ellie Lisitsa gives the following examples to illustrate the difference in her article about the Four Horsemen on The Gottman Institute website:

  • 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!”

Picture yourself at the receiving end of each of those statements. The criticism feels an order of magnitude worse, doesn’t it? Criticism makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, as you are essentially dismantling their whole being when you criticize. If you find you and your partner are critical of each other, your relationship isn’t doomed to fail…yet. The real problem with criticism is, when it becomes pervasive, the perpetrator & victim begin escalating the pattern. This causes frequent reappearances of the first horseman, and paves the way for Contempt and the other, far deadlier horsemen to follow, if you don’t correct course.

The Antidote:

Remember the things you learned in elementary school about conflict resolution? About how to use ‘I’ statements to talk about your feelings, and express positive needs? Yeah, it’s pretty much that. The antidote for criticism is to complain without blame; Gottman calls it The Gentle Startup. Avoid saying “you,” which can indicate blame, and instead talk about your feelings using “I” statements and express what you need in a positive way. To put it simply, think of these two things to formulate your soft start-up: What do I feel? What do I need? Here’s a concrete example of how to accomplish this:

  • Criticism: “You always talk about yourself. Why are you always so selfish?”
  • Antidote: “I’m feeling left out of our talk tonight and I need to vent, too. Can we please talk about my day?”

When you talk about what you feel and what you need, there’s no blame or criticism being projected onto your partner, which prevents the discussion from escalating into an argument.

Contempt

The second horseman is Contempt, which is – simply put – when our communication becomes truly mean. Contemptuous communication often involves some combination of treating others with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridiculing, name-calling, or using obnoxious body language such as eye rolling or scoffing. An example:

“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 video games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid. Could you be any more pathetic?” 

Contempt goes beyond criticism in that, instead of just attacking your partner’s character, you also assume a position of moral superiority over them. If you feel like you are somehow better than your partner…AND you let them know that…you may have reached the point of harboring contempt in your relationship. Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner—which come to a head when the perpetrator attacks the accused from a position of relative superiority. While contempt brews slowly, it can get ugly quickly – studies even show that couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.) than others due to weakened immune systems! Most importantly, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. It must be eliminated.

The Antidote:

In a healthy relationship, mean should be the last thing you want to be to your partner, so how can you replace this negative communication style? It may sound like a lot of work, but the only way to truly counteract contempt is to build a culture of appreciation in your relationship. Regularly remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and why you fell in love with them in the first place. Find gratitude for their positive actions. Most importantly, remind them of these “glimmers” whenever you see them, too. Remind them of why you love them, thank them when they do something helpful, and praise them when they succeed at something. Positive reinforcement will go a long way towards encouraging positive behavior that doesn’t lead you to feeling contempt for the person you love.

Defensiveness

The third horseman is Defensiveness, which often occurs in response to criticism. We all get a little defensive from time to time, and this horseman rears it’s head even more when our relationship is on the rocks. Defensiveness happens when we feel unjustly accused or blamed for something. We fish for excuses and play the innocent victim, just hoping our partner will back off. Unfortunately this strategy often backfires. Our excuses tell our partner that we don’t take their concerns seriously and that we won’t take responsibility for our mistakes, possibly breeding contempt in them. An example:

  • Question: “Did you call Sherri and John to let them know that we can’t come to their dinner tonight as you promised this morning?”
  • Defensive response: “I was too darn busy today. As a matter of fact, you knew just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”

In this case, the accused partner not only responds defensively, but they reverse blame attempting to make it the other partner’s fault. Defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if the critical spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner, and it doesn’t allow for healthy conflict management.

The Antidote:

Take Responsibility: Try to accept your partner’s perspective on the situation, and apologize for any wrongdoing. Take a deep breath to get your thoughts together before responding; it can help a great deal in preventing an automatic defensive response. Responding non-defensively expresses acceptance of responsibility, admission of fault, and understanding of your partner’s perspective. In other words, as long as your partner isn’t coming at you with something completely out of left field that you had nothing to do with, you need to show you own your mistake. Check out this substitute non-defensive response to the above scenario:

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

It is completely understandable, and almost a natural instinct, to defend yourself – especially if you’re stressed out and feeling attacked. The defensive approach will rarely have the desired effect. Slow down so you can carefully consider a non-defensive response, instead of going with your angry, automatic, from-your-gut defensive reply.

Stonewalling

The Fourth Horseman – aka shit’s really bad and we need to fix it, like, yesterday – is Stonewalling. Stonewalling typically occurs as a response to contempt. It’s essentially when the listener in a conflict discussion completely withdraws from the interaction and stops responding completely. Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall try to make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors. Numbing out, shutting down, the silent treatment – whatever you want to call it, it’s an unhealthy response to the conflict becoming so overwhelming, they’d rather pretend it didn’t exist.

It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to trigger a Stonewalling response, and after all that, it can sometimes seem like a reasonable “out”, but it can quickly become a bad habit. Once you start, stonewalling unfortunately isn’t easy to stop. It is a result of feeling physiologically flooded. When we stonewall, we may not even be in a physiological state where we can discuss things rationally.

The Antidote:

If you recognize that you’re beginning to stonewall your partner, Gottman asserts it’s important to take some time away for self-soothing. Lovingly tell your partner that talking any more about this conflict right now isn’t going to accomplish anything good. Then remove yourself from the conversation (and probably the room) and go do something you find psychologically soothing…or even just distracting. For at least 20 minutes, do something alone that soothes you—read a book, take a walk, go for a run, play a video game—just do anything that helps you to stop feeling flooded. Hopefully this gives your partner time to self-soothe as well. Only once you feel ready should you return to the conversation, and you should find it much easier to lead the discussion towards a positive, constructive outcome.

Here’s a handy cheat sheet from The Gottman Institute to help sum all this up:

Remember, just because you and your partner may be exhibiting some (or all) of these negative conflict communication habits doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed to fail – but it does mean you need to start work on fixing things immediately. If you see you can’t do it on your own, or with the help of self-help books, programs, or podcasts, seeing a counselor or therapist who specializes in couples can be great place to start. Some couples see seeking therapy as meaning things are past the point of no return and you’re giving up, when in fact it’s quite the opposite. It means you love and care about your partner so much you want to make things work with them, even if great emotional labor is involved.

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