Unseating the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

In his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, John Gottman identifies four characteristics of marriages that signal the marriage is beginning to deteriorate.

These four characteristics are:

  • Criticism
  • Contempt
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling

Since these four characteristics impede communication and prevent the positive from asserting itself in the relationship, our series will begin right away with lessening their impact.

In your relationships you may find that the four horsemen rarely if ever appear. If this is so, simply enjoy the benefits of releasing these non-coherent patterns to an even greater degree. If, on the other hand, the four horsemen are running roughshod through your life, take heart! We are about to unseat them.


Criticism (personality attack) often crawls in when complaints (objective statements of unmet needs) have 'fallen upon deaf ears.' Unlike criticism, complaints are statements of personal reality (I am disappointed we're not going to have dinner together tonight; I was looking forward to being with you.) Complaints do not target the shortcomings of the other party, whereas criticism does this expressly. (You're always spending time with your friends and completely forgetting about me and what I go through for you.)

When dealing with criticism, the receiver is left in the awkward position of having to take a personal hit, often times below the belt, or appear defensive. Since criticism is aimed at the character of a person, it is extremely damaging to the relationship.


Contempt, perhaps somewhat self explanatory, often runs in on the heels of criticism. While criticism isn't nearly the productive communication tool we wish it were, it is often the one resorted to -- especially if it was the primary communication method that was modeled for us. When criticism fails to work, (and it always does,) we often become even less enamored of our former dear one. As our ineffectiveness to bring about the outcome we desire becomes more and more apparent, our partner bears an ever increasing burden for us as contempt becomes more and more prominent. You can recognize contempt by the undercurrent of hostility and the appearance of name-calling.

The antidote for contempt is respect and connection. By staying connected, to ourselves and then to our partners, we are able to maintain our humility and love. By providing a 5:1 ratio of positive strokes and connecting measures to 'growth opportunities,' relationships stay healthy and grow.


If you're on the end of criticism and contempt, chances are, you've gotten a bit defensive! And if, by chance, you're the one dishing out the criticism and contempt, you're probably on the defensive as well.

When on the defensive, several unfortunate behaviors result. The remedy: stay connected, listen well, understand that the intensity of you and your partner's attacks indicates the depth of shared pain. Know that you will make it through this.

  • In what situations would you like to remain neutral, connected, and calm?
  • What from of defensiveness do you recognize within yourself: denying responsibility, making excuses, disagreeing with what you imagine your partner will say, playing one-upmanship with complaints, saying 'yes' followed immediately with 'but,' repeating yourself, or whining?
  • In what situations are you triggered into this behavior?


Stonewalling is one sure fire way to end the discussion. Unfortunately, while most men, due to their upbringing, see this as the safest retreat to keep everything intact; most women, also due to their upbringing, see this as a great and personal insult.

Many times when the four horsemen are rampaging through a relationship, the fight or flight reflex is alive and well. For men, their heart rate jumps when criticism appears on the scene. For women, it is when contempt appears. If the heart rate is up and the blood is pumping and the biological defense mechanism remains triggered without some form of connection or repair, the intensity becomes too great to continue without some form of physical expression. Stonewalling is often resorted to simply to 'walk away' from a situation that could get exponentially worse.