The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Relationships

By Salina Grilli, LMSW

According to Dr. Gottman, founder of the Gottman Institute and pioneer relationship researcher, four communication styles predict the demise of relationships. In the New Testament, the four horsemen—conquest, war, hunger, and death—foreshadow the end of time. In relationships, the "four horsemen" (or communication styles) — criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling—predict the end of relationships. Identifying these communication patterns is imperative to improving satisfaction in your relationships. 

Criticism
Criticism is when you attack your partners' character, often with the intent to hurt them. This differs from complaints, which address the specific action(s) your partner does that bother you.  

Examples:

  • "You were late to pick me up at the train station, you never support me when I need your help!"
  • "You're incredibly selfish. All you do is think about your needs—that’s why you were late to pick me up!"

Contempt
When a partner communicates with contempt, they convey disgust and anger. Oftentimes contempt is shown through non-verbal behaviors. Signs of contempt in a relationship include: sarcasm/mocking, name-calling, eye rolling, and sneering. Rather than deescalating situations, contempt has a tendency to create more conflict, in addition to breeding resentment.  

Example: "You're such an idiot. I can't believe you didn't remember where my parents live." 

Defensiveness
Defensiveness often arises in relationships when we feel criticized or attacked by our partner. In turn, we may make excuses for our behavior, deflect responsibility, and even try to blame our partner. Just like criticism and contempt, defensiveness is an ineffective method of communication. Rather than taking responsibility for our actions, defensiveness conveys that the problem at hand is your partners’ fault. Inevitably, this type of communication escalates conflict.

Examples:

  • "It's not my fault!"
  • "I did forget to take out the trash, but you didn't do the laundry this weekend." 

Stonewalling
Stonewalling tends to occur in later stages of relationships, when the other "horsemen of the apocalypse"—criticism, contempt, and defensiveness—have not been addressed. Stonewalling is essentially when one partner puts up a metaphorical wall by shutting down, avoiding, and/or refusing to engage with their partner. Rather than confronting issues that arise in all relationships, the stonewaller tunes out, avoids, and/or acts busy. 

Example: Your partner comes home from work late. You ignore them when they try to apologize and walk away. 

Salina Grilli is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support for noticing and working on these issues in relationships, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.