Four Horsemen of Relationships


Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling: Avoid the four horsemen of relationships
Consider how you and your partner behave during conflicts! How may you find constructive alternatives to reduce or avoid the tension and anger during conflicts? How would you feel about engaging in more constructive behaviours in times of conflict?


Enter the four horsemen – Four avoidable attributes which lead to relationship failure
The four horsemen of the Apocalypse is a vision of the New Testament describing conquest, war, famine and death, however this metaphor is used in relationships to describe communication styles which according to research can end relationships.
Conflict in itself is not an indication of a spoiled relationship. Conflict can in fact be typically healthy in a relationship as it can be productive in getting your needs met by your partner. “It is how you deal with conflict that can become problematic”. The four horsemen are counterproductive behaviours which we all use at some time, however constant use of these behaviours can lead to difficult relationships which need some Tender Loving Care.


1. Criticism
The first horse is criticism. Criticising your partner is not quite the same as offering constructive critique or voicing a complaint. Learning the difference between criticism and expressing a complaint is important. Voicing your concerns and complaints in a relationship is acceptable but do it in a way that focuses on your feelings, and how your partners behaviour affects you. An example would be the use of “I” statements….such as “I feel alone and isolated when you come home late at night.” as opposed to making global attacks on your partners entire personality…”you are so selfish and inconsiderate.”
If you are finding that you and your partner are critical of each other, do not assume your relationship is doomed to fail. The problem is when the criticism paves the way for other far more damaging behaviours which follow. Criticism makes the other person feel assaulted, rejected and hurt and can cause both partners to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman appears with greater frequency and intensity which eventually leads to contempt.


2. Contempt
The second horseman is contempt. Communicating in a state of contempt is when we are really mean and treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The person being targeted is made to feel despised and worthless.
Contempt reaches far beyond criticism which attacks your partners character, contempt assumes a stance of moral superiority over them. Instead of keeping score of your partners flaws, consider their positive qualities and what you appreciate about them
Research has revealed that couples who show constant contempt towards each other are more likely than others to have weakened immune systems. Contempt is fuelled by long-simmering negative thoughts about your partner, which come to head when attacks on partners are from a position of relative superiority.
Most importantly, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. Contempt needs to be eliminated.


3. Defensiveness
The third horseman is defensiveness, which is typically a response to criticism. We have all at some stage been defensive, and this horseman is generally encountered when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel we are being unjustly accused we search for excuses to play the innocent victim so our partner will back off.
This strategy unfortunately is seldom successful. The message we are sending to our partner is that we don’t take their concerns seriously and we are not willing to take responsibility for our mistakes.
Not only does this partner respond defensively, but they reverse blame in an attempt to make it the other persons fault. A non-defensive response can express acceptance of responsibility, admission of fault, and understanding of your partners perspective.
Often a simple apology can go a long way but do take time to hear your partner and take responsibility when appropriate.
While it is perfectly understandable to defend yourself if you are stressed out and feeling attacked, this approach will not have the desired effect. Defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if the critical partner does not apologize or back down. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner, and it won’t allow for healthy conflict management.


4. Stonewalling
The fourth horseman is stonewalling, which is usually a response to contempt. This is when the listener shuts down, withdraws from the interaction and simply stops responding to their partner. Rather than confronting the issues with their partner, people who stonewall can make evasive manoeuvres such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviours.
Once the negativity created by the first three horseman sets in and becomes overwhelming, stonewalling becomes an understandable way out, however this can frequently become a bad habit. Unfortunately, it is not easy to stop stonewalling. It is the result of feeling physiologically and psychologically flooded and when stonewalling we may not be in a state to discuss things rationally.
If you need time out to collect your thoughts and take a few deep breaths, let your partner know how you feel and ask if you can return to the conversation when you are ready. This will give your partner the understanding that you are taking care of yourself and not trying to reject them.
Being able to identify the Four Horsemen in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication and conflict patterns, you must replace them with healthy, productive ones.
Fortunately, each horseman has a proven positive behaviour that will counteract negativity. Should you feel you would like help to deal with the negative behaviour in your relationship, it is advisable to seek help from a qualified counsellor.



Gottman, J. (1995). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Simon & Schuster
Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (n.d.). The Gottman Institute. A research-based approach to relationships.