Should You Fear the Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse?

Can you really predict which couples will get divorced? As a therapist, I’m hesitant to embrace any ideology about relationships that paints couples with a broad brush. However, certain relationship dynamics can actually be telltale signs that a split is coming. Dr. John Gottman referred to these signs as the “Four Horsemen” for relationships. The Four Horsemen are specific communication habits that Gottman believes increase a couple’s likelihood of divorce. I’ll run through them for you here to help you see if you could be galloping straight toward trouble.

  1. Criticism

Constantly pointing out problems with your partner or relationship can be lethal to love. Note that criticism is very different from simply voicing concerns or complaints. When interacting with your partner critically, you’re constantly pointing out flaws and mistakes. An example would be telling your partner that they are always messy and sloppy when you see a sink full of dishes. This can lead to an attack on their character instead of a conversation about why prioritizing tidiness in the house would make everyone’s life better.

  1. Defensiveness

Does it feel like you’re always anticipating harsh words or accusations from your partner? When we feel the need to be defensive in a relationship, we might rush to “overexplain” every little thing we do. You can feel like you have to provide justification and excuses whenever something isn’t done “perfectly.”

Another tactic may be to criticize first to avoid being the victim of criticism. An example would be telling your partner that you’ll start doing the dishes when they actually do the laundry for once. Finally, some people who feel defensive in a relationship will actually fall into a victim mentality. When this happens, the focus is on highlighting offenses committed by the other partner. When a person with a victim mentality decides that their partner is at fault, they may stop taking any responsibility for the state of the relationship.

  1. Stonewalling

What exactly is stonewalling in a relationship? In my opinion, this is a dynamic that nobody is talking about enough! Many people feel hurt and rejected in relationships because their partners cut them off emotionally. When a partner is stonewalling, they act like a “stone wall” by being unresponsive, uncaring, and uncompassionate. The stonewalling partner may avoid eye contact, take a defensive posture, or simply tune out their partner. For the person doing the stonewalling, the “cold” demeanor is actually a defense mechanism! They are often in a state of intense stress or fear because their partner initiated a conversation that has triggered the release of stress hormones that actually cut off normal relational behaviors.

  1. Contempt

Contempt is the most lethal of the Four Horsemen. When contempt creeps in, one partner begins to express their discontentment using sarcasm, pointed blame, disgust, and mockery. It can feel like constant belittling. In my experience, contempt can often evolve into emotional abuse. Contempt can develop for a few reasons. The most common one is that contempt has developed over time due to long-standing, unresolved feelings of resentment. It’s also possible that the contemptuous partner simply saw their parent or caregiver treating others with contempt during arguments.

Worried about the Four Horsemen of the relationship apocalypse? It may be time to saddle up with some individual or couples counseling. If any of these dynamics recently led to the end of a relationship, I highly recommend downloading my Break-up Guide to steer clear of these same pitfalls the next time around.