The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: How These Destructive Behaviors Can Ruin a Relationship


In decades of research into relationships, John Gottman has found that certain behaviors can be particularly destructive to a partnership. These behaviors are commonly referred to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because of the way they can bring about the end of a relationship. The Four Horsemen include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse


is the behavior of attacking a partner’s personality or character instead of focusing on a specific action or behavior. Criticism can be hurtful and damaging because it attacks a partner’s sense of self. For example, saying “You’re so lazy” or “You never help around the house” is a form of criticism.


involves treating a partner with disrespect, disdain, or disgust. It often involves sarcasm, name-calling, or mocking. Contempt is a strong predictor of relationship failure because it creates an atmosphere of negativity and hostility. For example, saying “You’re such an idiot” or rolling one’s eyes when a partner speaks is a form of contempt.


is the behavior of making excuses or counter-attacking in response to a partner’s complaints or criticism. It often involves playing the victim or denying responsibility. Defensiveness is a natural response to feeling attacked, but it can be harmful if it becomes a habit. For example, saying “It’s not my fault, you’re always picking on me” is a form of defensiveness.


is the behavior of withdrawing or shutting down in response to conflict or emotional overwhelm. Stonewalling can be particularly damaging because it creates a sense of emotional disconnection and can lead to feelings of loneliness or abandonment. For example, giving a partner the silent treatment or physically leaving the room during an argument is a form of stonewalling.

If these Four Horsemen are present in a relationship, it’s important to address them as soon as possible. They can create a cycle of negativity and resentment that can be difficult to break.

Strategies to Counteract

Fortunately, there are strategies that couples can use to counteract the Four Horsemen and build a stronger, healthier relationship.

One key strategy is to focus on specific behaviors, rather than attacking a partner’s character or personality. Instead of saying “You’re always so selfish,” a person can try saying “I feel hurt when you don’t listen to me.” This approach can help defuse defensiveness and prevent the cycle of negativity from escalating.

Another strategy is to practice building a culture of appreciation and respect in the relationship. By expressing gratitude, fondness, and admiration for a partner, a person can counteract contempt and create a positive emotional climate. Making an effort to notice and acknowledge the things a partner does well and taking the time to celebrate successes together can help build a culture of appreciation and respect.

In addition, it’s important to practice emotional attunement, or the ability to understand and respond to a partner’s emotional needs. This involves active listening, empathy, and validation, and can help prevent stonewalling and create a sense of emotional connection.

By recognizing the destructive power of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and practicing positive behaviors such as appreciation and emotional attunement, couples can build a strong and lasting relationship.

Remember, relationships require work and effort, but the rewards of a happy, healthy partnership are worth it. With a commitment to love, respect, and emotional connection, couples can overcome even the toughest challenges and build a relationship that lasts a lifetime.

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