What Are the Four Horsemen in Relationships?


Just like the Four Horsemen bring out the Apocalypse in the New Testament, there are four (4) communication patterns that can spell doom for any relationship. The Gottman Institute calls these patterns the Four Horsemen, and they include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Once these patterns take hold in your relationship or marriage, you may be heading for a breakup or divorce. Nevertheless, there are antidotes to the Four Horsemen, and you may be able to save your love before it’s too late.

Horseman 1: Criticism

Criticism can kill any relationship, no matter how strong. The first horseman does not refer to constructive criticism, critiques, or complaints but rather attacks on your partner. For example, a complaint may be something like, “I’m sad you forgot to buy the milk. I need it for cooking,” and criticism might sound like, “You always forget the milk. Why can’t you remember something for once?

In the first example, your partner can say, “I’m sorry I forgot the milk. Let me run to the store before you start cooking,” but in the second, your partner might feel attacked and hurt, and there’s nothing they can do to remedy the situation.

When talking to your partner, avoid words like always and never and stay away from negative adjectives. Frame your complaint in terms of your feelings and the problem at hand instead, so your partner can acknowledge your feelings, and you can solve the problem together.

Horseman 2: Contempt

When you communicate with contempt, you are not being kind to your partner. The second horseman includes sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, and other forms of disrespect, as well as negative body language like eye-rolling and scoffing.

Even if you don’t consciously want to hurt your partner, speaking with contempt is designed to make them feel despised and worthless. Contempt also comes from a place of moral superiority and long-simmering negative thoughts.

To return to our previous example, a contemptuous partner might say:

I cannot believe you forgot the milk. You literally had one job. Why are you such an idiot? I don’t have time for this, and I’m tired of doing everything myself. Dinner is ruined, and you ruined it.”

Instead of being contemptuous, try to build a culture of appreciation with your partner. Remind yourself of their positive qualities and everything they do right. If you did this in the previous answer, you might say something like:

Thank you for picking up the kids. Did you remember to buy the milk?” With the culture you have built together, your partner will likely apologize and run out to buy the milk without an argument.

Contempt is the number one predictor of divorce, so when criticism becomes contempt, you need to get rid of it immediately. At this point, you may even need to see a marriage or family therapist for help.

Horseman 3: Defensiveness

Defensiveness usually emerges as a response to criticism, and the cycle of criticism and defensiveness becomes more and more frequent when a relationship is on the rocks. In defensiveness, you might play the victim, so your partner stops criticizing you or accusing you of problems in the relationship.

Ironically, the third horseman does not defend you, nor does it benefit your relationship. Instead, your partner may feel like you don’t take them seriously and that you don’t take responsibility for your mistakes.

Let’s go back to the spilled milk.

If your partner says, “Did you remember the milk?” and you say, “I was going to, but you called me on the way home and I forgot to go to the grocery store,” you have now tried to reverse blame. Even though you forgot the milk, the problem is now your partner’s fault.

The opposite of defensiveness is accepting your responsibility, admitting fault, and understanding your partner’s perspective. If you forgot the milk, try this instead:

Oh no! I forgot the milk. I’m sorry; I knew you needed it for dinner. I’ll go to the store right now.”

Although it may be tempting to explain your forgetfulness or make an excuse, and you may want to stand up for yourself if you feel criticized or attacked, defensiveness will only escalate the conflict.

Opt for healthy conflict management instead of blaming your partner, which is ultimately the core of defensiveness.

Horseman 4: Stonewalling

If you’ve had enough of an argument or frequent conflict, you might start stonewalling. Also called “the silent treatment,” stonewalling happens when you simply stop listening or responding to your partner. If you’re exhibiting the fourth horseman, you might withdraw or shut down. You might tune out your partner, turn your body away from them, start doing something else, or do something distracting so you don’t have to deal with the conflict.

Once you start stonewalling, you might get into a habit of it, and once you get into a habit of stonewalling, your relationship won’t last long.

If you feel yourself stonewalling, ask for a time out and take 20 minutes to do something that makes you feel relaxed. Don’t just walk away – ask if you can take a break and finish the conversation later.

Is It Too Late?

By the time one or both partners are stonewalling, there may be little hope for the relationship. Couples can seek professional help to learn how to implement healthy behavior during conflict, but therapy is only going to work if both parties are willing to work on the relationship.

Additionally, once the Four Horsemen establish themselves within your relationship, it can be challenging to break the patterns.

If you or your spouse are unwilling to work on the marriage, it may be time to talk to someone about separation. The Springer Law Firm can help you achieve your goals with dignity and respect. Combined, our team has more than 85 years of experience helping couples and families through their most difficult moments, and we can help you too.

Call us at (281) 990-6025 or contact us online to discuss your legal options today.

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