An unhappy couple sitting on a couch looking away from each other

Saving Doomed Relationships

“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and How to Stop Them

“You’re such a slob.”

“It’s not my fault you’re always forgetting our appointments.”

“I can’t believe how annoying you are.”

“Just forget about it, okay?”

For some of you reading this, some of those statements might ring a bell. Maybe you think of arguments you’ve had recently with a partner, maybe you think of a scene you saw in a movie about two spouses going at each other, or maybe you’ve seen a vehement conflict between your parents, your in-laws, your friends, your neighbors. While all relationships are unique in how they handle disagreements, there are some universal patterns that occur in romantic partnerships. You may be able to spot some of the issues arising in the statements above, but generally, our psychological understanding of what helps and hurts our relationships is fairly new.

Early marriage counseling was a bit of a relationship wild west - focusing on anything from complete reciprocity to catharsis via hitting one another with foam bats. The field was forever changed when researchers John Gottman and Robert Levenson created the “Love Lab”, which would mark the start of Gottman’s over four decades of studying marriage success and divorce. Throughout his research in the Love Lab and beyond, Gottman can observe couples and predict with 90% certainty if the couple will stay together or not. How does he do it? By observing what he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

In theory, the idea is simple: the presence of the Four Horsemen - the four most devastating patterns in relational conflict - implies that the relationship will eventually meet it’s “Apocalypse” - a break-up or divorce. Gottman identified the Four Horsemen as the following: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. So does this mean that all relationships with the Four Horsemen are destined to fail? According to Gottman, not if you start to remedy these transgressions with each of their corresponding “antidotes”. In this article, we’ll discuss in depth the features of each Horsemen and how you and your partner can counteract it.


With the first horsemen, criticism, it’s important to note that there is a difference between critical feedback and criticism. It is normal and healthy to voice complaints and feedback in a relationship. Criticism goes beyond the original complaint (i.e. the dishes are dirty, the laundry is not done, the lawn is not mowed, etc.) and attacks the character of the person. By attacking the person, the original complaint will be lost in the conflict regarding the person themselves. Criticism on its own can be dangerous to relational wellbeing, but it also becomes dangerous by paving the way for other horsemen, such as contempt.


“If you weren’t so lazy, the house would have been cleaned when I got home.”

The Antidote:

A way to avoid criticism when voicing a complaint is to utilize a gentle startup. Gentle startups are ways to initiate a conversation without immediately going to “attack” mode - it centers the speaker and their request rather than the listener and their perceived flaw. Some of the key features of a gentle startup include: speaking in “I” rather than “you” statements, describing the situation before judging or evaluating, explaining your need clearly, and approaching with kindness and appreciation.


“I felt upset coming home to the kitchen being dirty. It would be helpful if you could take more initiative to clean on the days that I’m working and you’re at home.”


There is often a natural response when conflict arises that we feel the need to absolve ourselves of any wrongdoing. One of the biggest detriments to conflict resolution in couples is viewing the situation as a “me vs. you” dilemma as opposed to “us vs. the problem.” If criticism comes with the intention of putting down our partner’s character, defensiveness is about lifting up our own character. Maybe defensiveness is a response to criticism, or maybe even they two are compounded to create an even larger gap between partners.


“It’s not my fault that the bill is late. I always pay my share on time, you just forgot to send it in.”

The Antidote:

In almost every situation, the problem is not a black and white one person is wrong and the other right. Taking on the “us vs. the problem” perspective allows us to take responsibility. Taking responsibility, even if just for a fraction of the situation, helps you both better understand the roles you play in conflict. It also works to bring you together with your partner to resolve the concern as opposed to opening the door to more conflict.


“Maybe it would have been helpful if I had reminded you. If I notice it hasn’t been paid yet, I should speak up, too.”


Contempt is possibly the most dangerous horsemen, as it is the greatest predictor of relationship failure. Contempt occurs when one partner assumes an air of superiority over the other; contempt goes beyond a criticism of character to demean and put down one’s persona. It may assume the form of mockery, disrespect, attacking sarcasm, ridicule, and dismissive body language (i.e. eye rolling, crossing arms, mimicry).  


“You never ask for my opinion. You’re such an asshole.”

The Antidote:

It’s important in relationships to build a culture of respect and appreciation for each other. This needs to be done in tangent with expressing one's own needs before attacking the other person. Dr. Gottman and his research partner, Robert Levenson, discovered through their research that there exists a “magic ratio” for positive and negative couple interactions. Generally speaking, the ratio is 5:1; five positive interactions for every negative interaction. Showing care, empathy, and gratitude towards one another regularly can help gear you closer to a magic ratio in your relationship.


“I appreciate your desire to take initiative on some of the hard decisions, but it’s really important to me that I get a say. Can we talk this through together?”


The final horsemen, stonewalling, often occurs after the previous three are present. Partners will shut down on their significant other, no longer responding or even seeming to listen to what is being said to them. Those who stonewall are often emotionally and physiologically flooded - no longer able to utilize rational thought or engage in discussion. Stonewalling can become a pattern that makes it impossible for partners to have any discussion at all.


“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

The Antidote:

It’s common in difficult conversations to feel overwhelmed. One of the best ways to prevent stonewalling to become a roadblock in health communication is to practice taking breaks. As much as it can be hard to walk away from a disagreement, when you’re emotionally and physiologically aroused, you are not thinking rationally about the situation. Taking a break to self-soothe can lead to more effective communication once you return. Breaks should be at least 20 minutes and no more than 24 hours should pass before returning to the discussion. Engage with soothing activities during breaks, such as deep breathing, reading, going on a walk, having a warm cup of tea, etc.


“I need some time alone. Can we come back to this after I walk the dog?”

In the end, if you’re finding it difficult to communicate with your partner, it might be time to consider couples therapy. Despite common misconceptions, couples counseling is not only for married folks considering divorce. Couples treatment is a great way to learn new ways of communicating with your partner, as well as discuss concerns related to trust, honesty, fidelity, intimacy, co-parenting, and much more. Listed below are other resources that may be helpful for those looking to better understand how to foster healthy relationships.


The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman

The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman

Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson

Where Should We Begin with Esther Perel

The Gottman Institute