Gottman’s four horsemen of the apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the Book of Revelations in the New Testament. They describe conquest (white horse), wars (red horse), famine (black horse), and death (pale horse) respectively.

The Gottman Institute uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that similarly predict the end of a relationship.

What are the four horsemen of the apocalypse in conflict?

Over 40 years of research by Dr. John Gottman, Ph.D. has shown that there are some patterns of interaction in a relationship that are very destructive to love: the four things that really destroy marriages. Research shows that four interactions, criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt are very damaging to a marriage.

Gottman Method Couples Therapists have been trained to recognize and to help couples change around these destructive patterns. Changing these patterns is important in order to improve your marriage.

First horseman – criticism

Every marriage has conflict discussions. But Gottman has learned that how you begin this conversation is a predictor of divorce if left unchanged. It has been proven a simple fact that the way you start out a conversation predicts how effectively the conversation will end.

The first one of Gottman’s Four Horsemen is criticism. In criticism, you blame your partner frequently. You frame your complaints as if there’s something defective in your partner.

One puts the other one down. It is a global description of a flaw in your partner’s personality. There is a direct implication that something is wrong with your partner’s character. e.g.:

“You’re a jerk!!!”

“Can’t I complain?”

Of course. Expressing your feelings, even strong, powerful feelings is fine. But how you do it matters.

Criticism vs. complaints

A complaint is not like criticism. A complaint is specific to a behavior you want to change.

Criticism is an attack on the person.

Here is an example:  You have discovered that the toilet seat is up.


“The toilet seat is up again. Please try to put it down after you use it.”


“What’s WRONG with you? Are you so lazy that you won’t even put down a toilet seat after you use it?”

What’s wrong with criticism?

Criticism is problematic because you’re suggesting that the problem is really THE OTHER PERSON.

Criticism is never helpful. There is no such thing as “constructive criticism.” Go for a complaint instead.

With a complaint, the couple kicks the problem around, like a soccer ball. You can work on the problem together, even if you disagree.

Toss it back and forth respectfully. Examine it more calmly.

But with criticism, you are kicking the otheperson around! THEY are the problem! What they did or didn’t do is just more evidence of why they are such a problem.

When you attack your partner, instead of their behavior, that is criticism.

Complain about behavior instead

Complaining requires you to be specific about the behavior you want to change. So in couples therapy, we want to focus on changing your partner’s behavior that is annoying you.

The “masters of marriage” complain. The “disasters of marriage” criticize.

It can be really challenging to break a chronic pattern of criticizing. Our retreats help the couple to re-word their criticisms, so they understand the concept deeply and have practice making good complaints.

If they find themselves emotional and unable to criticize, we have the time to look more deeply at what this spousal behavior means to them. If it has greater significance, we give you the time to explore that over the weekend.

Second horseman – defensiveness

The second of the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse in marriage is defensiveness. When you feel under attack, your response to feeling criticized is to get defensive. I say “feeling criticized” instead of “being criticized” because your perception is a driving force, whether it’s true criticism or not.

Defensiveness is an attempt to protect yourself; to defend your innocence or to ward off a perceived attack. Sometimes it is done by counter-attacking, or by whining (innocent victim stance). e.g. “Me? Why are you picking on me? What about you?”

What’s wrong with defensiveness?

Defensiveness in marriage conveys the message that you will not be impacted or influenced by what your partner has to say.

They cannot have an effect on you. You’ve just batted it back, effectively saying: “That’s not true!”

Partners who feel that they have no impact feel discounted and often become angry in response to defensiveness. They might escalate the fight to insist on their perspective and to get their point across.

Don’t Bat it Back…Do They Have a Point?

The “masters of marriage” accept some responsibility for what their partner is bringing to them. They don’t bat it back. They don’t deny all charges!

Of course, it gets complicated, too, as I’ve mentioned. Sometimes you think you are under attack, but you really aren’t. But it feels like it, so you get defensive.

Here is an example of a defensive response to the raised toilet seat:

Defensiveness: “I didn’t even use the bathroom. How could I have left up the toilet seat?”

Accepting Influence: “I know you asked me before to try to keep it down. I don’t remember even being in there, but I’ll put it down the next time. Thanks for the reminder…”

The ability to accept some responsibility, no matter how small, is a cure for defensiveness. You look for what you agree with, in what your partner says, not what you disagree with. You communicate:

“I hear you. What you say matters. You matter.”

Defensiveness causes things to escalate FAST! As therapists, we need to clearly identify understandable defensiveness (e.g. You’re being attacked…) from perceived criticism. It is a difficult habit to break.

Third horseman - stonewalling

The Third of the Gottman Four Horsemen is Stonewalling. In Stonewalling, the listener withdraws from the interaction while staying in the room. There is an effort not to give a clue that he or she is even listening. You will see this type of non-verbal behavior.

  • Looking to the side
  • Not maintaining eye contact
  • Crossing one’s arms

People often stonewall because they become overwhelmed internally…what Gottman calls “flooded.” Their heartbeat races. They stop thinking very clearly. They get highly agitated.

Stonewalling is ineffective

Stonewalling is an ineffective attempt to calm yourself (or the situation) down, but often this doesn’t happen for two reasons:

  1. The person who is stonewalling is thinking negative thoughts over and over in their minds (“I can’t believe she said that! That is so unfair!”) and
  2. the person who is experiencing the stonewalling often finds it very upsetting to be ignored. Often they will attempt to re-engage their partner by escalating the conflict. In other words, they fight harder or louder. Or both.

The alternative to Stonewalling is to learn to actively calm yourself down and then to re-engage in the conversation. I teach ways to calm down using biofeedback instruments with people who Stonewall.

If women do most of the complaining, men do most of the stonewalling. It is useful to help a husband recognize why he’s Stonewalling his spouse and help him to calm down.

Men stonewall 85% of the time compared to women.

Then re-engage. It’s helpful also for the woman to understand that her behavior actually greatly impacts her partner, and he’s managing that impact by looking “disinterested.”

Breaking patterns like this is easier when you have a lot of practice.

When people can’t break this pattern, a professional trained in microexpressions and facial recognition can help. We often respond strongly to our partner’s physical cues that are out of their awareness!

Fourth horseman - contempt

The final of the Gottman Four Horsemen is contempt. Contempt is really something to eliminate when it exists in a relationship.

It includes things like threats, name-calling, eye-rolling, and insulting. To do that, we have to change a lot of things in your way of relating.

We see the other three Horsemen in good relationships, but we don’t see Contempt when a relationship is working well.

Threats are a pattern of emotional abuse and are never helpful. Nothing is more destructive to love.

Being contemptuous is to put someone down, to take a higher plane – e.g. A higher moral ground. “I’m smarter/better/kinder than you are.” It may include belligerence – declaring an all-out war on one another.

Sometimes couples will mock each other. Sometimes they will correct each other’s grammar. The message is “I’m superior to you. You are beneath me.” or “Ya, right, you idiot…”

A toxic mindset

There is an underlying mindset, a negative habit of mind, in a contemptuous person.

The contemptuous person often scans the environment, looking for people’s mistakes, instead of what is positive about their partner that they can enjoy and appreciate.

Contempt is also physically damaging to the receiver.  Research tells us that contempt is correlated with infectious illness in the partner receiving the contempt.

The habit of speaking contemptuously frequently has its origins in an abusive childhood.

Contempt can be shown non-verbally with an eye-roll or a unilateral lifting of the lip. We’re trained to identify these “micro-expressions” at a fraction on a second. It helps us to inform the spouse of things they may not even be consciously aware of.

Fighting contempt, the most destructive of Gottman’s 4 horsemen

To fight contempt, couples have to work hard to create a culture of appreciation, but more immediately to talk about yourself and not your partner.

Both of you may be feeling very unappreciated in this relationship, but attacking your partner isn’t the way to enhance their appreciation of your finer qualities!

To change this around, the long-term goal is to actively change one’s mindset. But the immediate antidote is to talk from your own perspective. If you can point a finger as you’re talking, you are likely being critical or contemptuous. Talk instead about yourself, your feelings, your desires, your frustrations.

To defeat the four horsemen remember that your attitude matters

In the long term, work on your attitude. Try and view your partner’s positive qualities and comment on them. Catch your partner doing something right, and tell them you appreciate them for what they are doing.

Troubled couples are very speedy in their interactions. They can flash a sneer or roll their eyes in an instant. This is why true couples therapists are often called “Ninja’s.” Using the Big Big Book, we assess your marriage carefully and then spring into action to stop the escalation.

Without immediate intervention, our offices become just like your living room couch. “All high negative emotion, no rational conversation.”  Once we de-escalate, it is time for you to talk about yourself, not what’s wrong with your partner.

You go to a couples therapy specialist for this type of expertise. Contempt seldom improves the emotional climate of a marriage.

Refusal to accept influence

While not an “official” member of Gottman’s 4 Horsemen, a husband’s refusal to accept influence is linked to marital destruction.

It is also “gendered” behavior, meaning that we see it in 65% of men, but seldom in women.

Dan Dashnaw, M.S., calls it “part of the male mystique of rugged individualism.”

To Dashnaw, “heroic” men seldom accept influence from their women or anyone else for that matter.

They “make their own way,” “follow their own conscience” or “do what has to be  done, regardless of the cost…”

However, in a marriage refusal to accept influence arises when the wife brings up a complaint, and even at the start of the conversation, his “ears are closed.”

It is perceived as disrespect from the wives, but husbands often feel justified.  “Why should I have to listen to that? It’s B.S.!”

Here’s the answer:

You listen because a collaborative partnership has been the key to happy marriages even before women could vote, own property, or even have custody of their own children.

Rumi, a poet, and mystic from the early 13th century put it succinctly when he reportedly said:

The wise man listens to his wife. The brute does not.”

Which category do you want to belong to?

About us: the four horsemen and changing your relationship

To change your relationship, these patterns of interaction, the Gottman Four Horsemen, have to be recognized and stopped. At Couples Therapy Inc we are devoted to helping you change these harmful interactions.

We have 10 Gottman-certified therapists on our team of over 25 therapists (of about 350 worldwide). Four are Master Trainers for the Gottman Institute (of 26 worldwide). We don’t stop there. We require one additional approach in couples therapy. Many have advanced training in Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy, the other evidence-based couples therapy model.

Our science-based training assures you of the highest quality, best-trained clinicians to tackle your most angry fights.

Originally published August 5, 2013

Dr. Heide Rodriguez teaches skills of Gottman Four Horsemen to new parents in Puerto Rico & Florida.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. Kathy McMahon

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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  1. Is there a good therapist in Thornhill Ontario close to Toronto. My husband and I are separated but live in the same house for three years. He covers his eyes when I talk to him and says I am the problem. I filed for divorce but he hid from service five times. He says it’s not money and he doesn’t want divorce but he refuses to go to counselling or speak to me.

  2. I suffer from PTSD because my older sister physically abused me as a child. It stopped as we got older but the abuse turned to mental and emotional and never stopped. My parents did nothing about it and wrote it off as sibling rivalry. Hence, I grew up in an “unsafe household”. My husband constantly and consistently criticises me which makes me want to run away and get as far away from him as I can. I can’t get him to understand how badly he triggers me. His philosophy is what happened in the past is in the past and I should just get over it. As far as he is concerned, his way is the right way so any other way must be wrong. I feel like I am talking to a brick wall who is so afraid of seeing another perspective for the fear of learning he might be “wrong”. I don’t want him to feel “wrong”. I just want him to see there are alternate solutions to problems. I need a kinder, gentler husband who takes my perspective into consideration. How do I get him to see things from my perspective without him feeling it might imply his perspective is wrong?

    1. You may not. Your husband may not be willing to accept your influence. This is true of 65% of men, according to Gottman. Kazz, if you are clearly telling him what triggers you, and he’s ignoring you, that’s psychological abuse. What he “believes” has no bearing. You are telling him your experience, and he’s ignoring you.

      You can’t “make him” accept influence. He has to see his own reasons for doing so. It sounds from your description that his rigidity is preventing him from doing so.

      If he won’t go to psychotherapy for couples help, go yourself. Your capacity to be firm when he criticizes can be learned, and how to protect yourself (or leave) if he insists on hurting you can also be motivating to him. Maybe not.

      The best suggestion, however, it to urge him to go into psychotherapy with you, so you both can be happier together. Good luck and get help.
      Dr. K

    2. I can’t believe that I didn’t write this myself. Only the players are different, but the game is the same. I hope it gives you some sort of comfort to know that there is at least one person on this earth that knows exactly how you feel.

  3. Dear Brian.
    Thank you for sharing your story. I am Dr. Rodriguez, one of the therapists at Couples Therapy Inc. I am glad that you are trying to apply the concepts of the Four Horseman into your daily living. It is difficult for me as an outsider to assess the sign in the toilet as a contempt or an angry expression, or a reminder. It all depends on the intentionality of the gesture.
    However, if it is hurtful for you, it is something that should be addressed. Try to be calm and have a conversation with your partner. Let her know how you feel when you see the reminder. Then try to listen (without defensiveness), her point of view. Each take turns to explain the underlying need or longing behind this issue. It is a need of order, love for the environment, need to feel supported..etc. Try to understand each other instead of convince each other into your own arguments. Then you can reach some kind of agreement on this. As Dr. Gottman states, your relationship is more important that to be right. Do not get trap in a power struggle thinking “I am not going to so, just because you are asking me” or “my argument is more important than yours” Successful couples, research shows, are gentle to each other and accept influence!
    Wishing you the best!
    Heide Rodríguez Ubiñas, Ph.D.
    Senior Couples Therapist

    Couples Therapy Inc.

    San Juan, Puerto Rico.

    Licensed Psychologist PR #3154

    Clinical Psychologist

    Trained in the Gottman Marital Model


  4. So writing a note in permanent marker on the underside of the toilet seat to flush every time could be considered a version of escalation from criticism to contempt? For one it is a major issue, for the other it is breaking a habit from growing up in an environment (concept) of conserving water and strain on a private septic. Unfortunately it began as criticism of being gross, incompetent, and intentionality.

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