The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Based on John Gottman's, PhD, Relationship Researce
Adapted from his book "The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work"

Dr. John Gottman can predict with 96% accuracy within the first three minutes of a couple having a conversation whether the relationship he is watching will survive over the long-haul or not.  He bases his predictions on four potentially destructive communication styles and coping mechanisms: (1) harsh startup; (2) the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; (3) flooding; (4) body language.

In this summary I focus on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament, that describes conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively.  Dr. Gottman uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship.  I do hope this is illuminating for you.  

The first horseman in a relationship is criticism.

Criticizing our partner is different than offering a critique or having a complaint.  The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former attacks our partner at the core.  In effect, we are dismantling his or her whole being when we criticize. 

Example: "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" is a complaint. "You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people.  I don't believe you are that forgetful; you just don't think about me" is a criticism. 

The second horseman is contempt.

When we communicate from this state, we are being mean, treating others with disrespect by using sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, and/or body language such as eye-rolling.  The partner feels despised and worthless. Contempt is toxic and cannot be replaced with anything. It must be eliminated. 

Example: "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 to flop down on that sofa and become a couch potato. You are just about the sorriest excuse for a husband I can think of." 

The third horseman is defensiveness.

This is an easy one to fall into. We feel accused of something and think that, if we tell our partner our excuse for doing what we did, he or she will back off.  But the excuse just tells our partner that we haven't considered anything he or she has said. Basically, by defending ourselves we are ignoring our partner. 

Example: She: "Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we are not coming tonight as you said this morning you would?" He: "I was just too darn busy today.  As a matter of fact you knew how busy my schedule was. Why didn't you just do it?" He not only responds defensively but turns the table and makes it her fault.  A non-defensive response would have been: "Oooops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed.  Let me call them right now."

The fourth horseman is stonewalling.

When we stonewall, we avoid conflict either because we are unconscious of our own feelings or because we are afraid.  Rather than confronting the issues (usually they tend to accumulate) with our partner, we make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, being busy or engaging in obsessive behaviors.  We simply stop engaging in the business of relating to another person. 


Working with couples for the past 30 years has validated for me, what Dr. Gottman's research has shown.  When all four horsemen are active and alive and predominate in a relationship, it is most likely too late to turn it around.  I believe when the latter two, “defensiveness” and “stonewalling” are present, your relationship has a chance to survive if you seek outside help such as couples counseling or some sort of reputable Marriage Encounter.  In order to change the first two horsemen, criticism and contempt, the person who engages in them really needs individual counseling because the attack on another person's worth usually stems from childhood wounds such as parental criticism, shaming, belittling or excessive demands.  You are welcome call or email me for a free 20-minute phone consultation, an email response, or to arrange an appointment. 

Visit Dr. Gottman's website at

In the Lansing Michigan area, please feel free to email or call me with any questions or comments at the address below.

Peter Roseman Psy.S.
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