The Four Horsemen: Signs Your Relationship is In Trouble

link to article about the four horsemen of the appocolypse in couples therapy

Therapist Nancy RyanBy Nancy Ryan

Marriage and Family Therapist

Fair Oaks, California

February 19th, 2020

The Four Horseman:
Signs Your Relationship is In Trouble

Dr. John Gottman is a clinical psychologist and one of the world’s leading experts on marriage and relationships. His approach to couples counseling, developed from over 40 years of studies involving over 3,000 couples, is designed to help couples create and sustain relationships that are based on friendship and connection. At the Relationship Therapy Center, we offer couples therapy that is based on the Gottman Method, working with you and giving you the tools to create a happy and successful partnership.

One such tool is effective communication. According to Gottman, there are four distinct communication styles that are damaging to a relationship. Named after The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, these four styles of communication are Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. When present, The Four Horsemen are corrosive to a relationship. However, by knowing what they look like, couples can work together to move out of damaging communication and into communication that nourishes and supports their relationship.

The First Horseman: Criticism

The first Horseman of communication is Criticism. Criticism often occurs when we do not feel seen or heard by our partner and consequently we scan our environment for the reason we feel unhappy. This style of communication, more commonly used by women than men, is an expression of disapproval of our partner and is based on personal beliefs and perceptions and not in reality. When we criticize, we point out our partner’s faults and flaws, blaming them and making them feel like they themselves are the cause of the problem.

Being critical is different than registering a complaint. To be a more effective communicator and to create a stronger relationship, separate your needs from your emotions and be very intentional with your words when communicating a dissatisfaction.

To help couples learn this, The Gottman Institute has developed a simple method of changing criticism into effective communication. To begin, use an “I” statement. Then, attach a feeling to that “I” statement and a reason for that feeling. Next, communicate to your partner what you need from them in order to feel more satisfied or heard.

For example: “I feel hurt when you don’t kiss me goodbye before you leave for work. I need you to take a minute to connect with me in the morning before you run out the door”. And remember, always be kind. Kindness is a very simple thing that goes a long way towards creating happiness in a relationship. Make a habit of focusing on the positive parts of your relationship rather than the negative ones and put in effort to make your partner feel seen and heard. To create and sustain a happy partnership, work together to create a culture of appreciation and communication.

quote from a therapist about the importance of kindness

The Second Horseman: Defensiveness

The second Horseman is Defensiveness, which often shows up as a guard against criticism. When we feel criticized or put down, it is natural for us to want to defend ourselves against the attack. The result is that instead of apologizing, accepting responsibility for something we could have done better, and moving forward, we get defensive and turn the blame back onto our partner.

This style of communication causes our partner to feel unseen and unheard. Partners who get defensive against one another build walls between them. Instead of the mentality of, “it’s us against the world”, defensive partners allow conflict and communication to create barriers between the two of them.

The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility. With teachings from the Gottman Institute, couples can learn to take down the walls that have formed in their relationship and to create trust and support for one another. At The Relationship Therapy Center, we work with couples to help build a foundation of friendship and to learn healthy communication.

The Third Horseman: Contempt

Contempt is the third Horseman to rear its ugly head. Whereas criticism is attacking your partner’s character, contempt is making them feel inferior because of who they are. People that feel contemptuous towards their partner feel superior to them and choose only to focus on their partner’s negative traits. Simply put, contempt is cruel and demeaning and cannot be present in any relationship where two people want to connect and grow with one another.

Contempt can be expressed in many different ways. It can be verbal or non-verbal, it can show up as sarcasm, rudeness, or eye-rolling. We all know how awful it feels to be on the receiving end of a contemptuous look or a look of disgust, and because of this, Gottman has discovered that out of all the Horseman, contempt is the single most damaging communication style and when present, is the greatest indicator of divorce.

To create connection, two people must rid their relationship of contempt. Simple ways to do this are by focusing on your partner’s positive characteristics, to look at him or her and to see the good in them. In the Gottman Method, this is referred to as “Building A Culture of Appreciation”, and includes showing gratitude and fondness towards your partner, In other words, loving your partner for who they are and expressing this love to them.

The Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling

Just as defensiveness is a response to criticism, Stonewalling is a response to contempt. Stonewalling will most often occur when the first three horsemen have shown up so often and with such regularity in a relationship that one partner or the other becomes psychologically flooded and shuts down. Men are much more likely to stonewall than women, becoming so emotionally and mentally overwhelmed that they cannot interact anymore. The result is that their partners feel that they do not care.

Stonewalling behaviors include tuning out or going silent. Even if you are still in the same room as your partner, you may simply stop listening or responding to them. In the extreme, stonewalling may look like one partner getting up and leaving the room. If you notice this is happening, stop the argument and communicate to your partner that you need some time to regroup. This is a great time to practice self-soothing and engage in an activity that will help calm you, such as exercise, art, or reading. Eventually, partners will know themselves and each other so well that they will be able to self-soothe and soothe one another so effectively that stonewalling will no longer occur.

In Conclusion

Just as learning anything new takes practice, learning how to be an effective communicator will take time and focus. But by learning how to communicate effectively in your relationship, you will be setting the foundation upon which to build a thriving, sustainable partnership. Be sure to check out The Gottman Institute for more information and contact us at to book a couples counseling session today.

About The Author

Therapist Nancy RyanNancy Ryan, M.A., LMFT and Certified Gottman Therapist owns a group counseling center in Fair Oaks and Roseville that employs 6 other therapists also trained in the Gottman Method Couples Counseling.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: