What Are The Four Horsemen Relationship Habits?

You may have heard of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" metaphor from the Bible — conquest, war, hunger, and death — which predict the end of times. It turns out there are "Four Horsemen" that can predict the end of a relationship as well, according to psychologist and marriage researcher John Gottman, PhD. 

Gottman is the co-founder of The Gottman Institute, which he founded with his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman, also a psychologist and researcher. The two have been married for 35 years and have used their expertise to help other couples. Gottman has been studying couples since the 1970s, discovering what makes relationships last and what ultimately can destroy them. Through years of research, Gottman has recognized the "Four Horsemen" as behavioral predictors of breakup or divorce: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. 

Gottman found that when these behaviors frequently showed up during conflict and difficult moments, partners began to turn to each other less to meet their communication needs, creating distance and isolation. Your relationship isn't necessarily doomed if you and your partner fall into these patterns, but if you refuse to improve and work on your communication, there's a chance that it might not work out. You can each make yourself aware of the "Four Horsemen" and let each other know when they come up during conflict. No matter how much we want to avoid it, conflict will arise in any relationship. It's how we get through these hard times that allows our relationships to become stronger.


Criticism involves noticing an issue and then turning it into a conversation about you or your partner's character. Someone who uses criticism often says things like "always" or "never" when discussing the things your partner does or doesn't do.

There's a difference between harsh criticism and simply complaining about issues once in a while. This issue tends to come up when there's an uneven balance of labor around the house or in general. For instance, maybe you asked your partner to throw a load of laundry in the wash while you were out of the house, but they forgot. This might make you feel frustrated at the end of a long day, so you might resort to criticism and say, "You're so forgetful. You never do the things I ask." This can trigger an argument.

A healthier response might look something like this. "I'm tired and I was hoping you would help me with this task. I'm frustrated that it's not done and I want to work better as a team." This person uses more "I" statements rather than fully blaming their partner's character. Taking a healthier approach, your partner can understand this bothered you and they can work to ensure it doesn't happen again. 


Contempt can happen when criticism goes too far, and it can escalate to verbal abuse. The criticism can start from, "You're so forgetful, you never help me" to full-blown contempt: "Of course, you're not helping me. You're lazy. Why do I even bother with you?" We are typically very angry when communicating with contempt. We might employ mean sarcasm, mockery, shame, and disrespect to make the other person feel bad about themselves.

Fixing contempt can take work for people, especially if they grew up around caregivers who also used the same communication tactic. Before you blow up at your partner, it helps to take a moment to yourself. When you feel yourself starting to get angry, try saying something like, "I'm getting really angry right now, but I don't want to say hurtful things. I want to fix this problem we're having." According to The Gottman Institute, it helps acknowledge something your partner did right rather than fixating on mistakes. In a healthy relationship, you and your partner should not belittle each other whenever a problem arises. Instead, you can try to work together as a team.


Defensiveness is a behavior that may come as a response to perceived criticism, creating a tough combination. When one partner uses criticism, the other may use defensiveness. And then the conversation does not lead anywhere toward a solution. While it's normal to feel a little defensive when you're stressed out, it's not a productive response to your partner's concerns.

Experts at Mind Body Green list several examples of what defensiveness might look like. This includes overexplaining to avoid responsibility, playing the victim card, starting to criticize you back, or using "but" statements like "I know I left a mess, but can't we just worry about it tomorrow?" 

When you become defensive, your partner might feel like their needs are not being heard. Instead of utilizing defensiveness, you can accept responsibility and try to understand your partner's perspective. Here's an example: One partner asks, "Did you get a chance to go to the store like I asked?" A defensive partner might respond with, "You know I was so busy today. Why couldn't you just do it?" This is not a helpful response and may only escalate things into an argument. Instead, a healthier reply would be, "I'm sorry, I totally didn't get a chance. Is it okay if I go tomorrow?" 


Stonewalling, or the silent treatment, is when one person in the conversation shuts down and becomes a "wall." This can look like refusing to respond, changing the subject, changes in body language, or acting busy with another task. This behavior can sometimes be a response to contempt, according to The Gottman Institute, as one partner feels overwhelmed or attacked and isn't able to carry on having the conversation. Stonewalling can also be painful on the receiving end of it. Though you're not saying anything hurtful, the withdrawal and silence might make your partner feel ignored and give the impression that you don't care about solving the issue. 

If you feel like you're shutting down, ask your partner for a moment to take a break. You can say something along the lines of, "I'm feeling overwhelmed and I need a minute to calm down. Can we revisit this in a bit?" This gives you both time to process and calm down before having a discussion. If your partner is the one stonewalling, ask them if you can discuss the issue at a later time. They should not, however, be trying to avoid every single tough conversation. Try to be patient and let them know that you care about working things out.

Working together to fix the Four Horsemen

We're all human, and sometimes we have bad days where we might resort to these poor communication methods. The important thing is that we recognize when they happen and work to make sure they're not showing up too frequently. According to research from The Gottman Institute, each horseman has an "antidote" that you can use to replace these bad habits.

If you feel yourself criticizing, it's best to talk about your own feelings by using "I" statements to express your needs instead of attacking your partner's character. Rather than using unkind words and contempt, try to instill a sense of gratitude and appreciation. Focus on the positive qualities of your partner. When you feel yourself getting defensive after your partner complains or when you feel criticized, take responsibility for any wrongdoings and try to understand their perspective. If you're overwhelmed and feel like you're going to stonewall, ask your partner to take a break and calm down before re-entering the conversation.

Though these four habits have been studied among romantic couples, you may have noticed them in other relationships, with friends, family, roommates, or work colleagues. Understanding your argument styles and patterns can help us break out of negative habits so we can better nurture our relationships.