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The Four Horsemen of Relationships

Updated: Mar 9

September 8, 2023

Do you want to know whether your relationship is heading in the wrong direction? Turn to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as created by John and Julie Gottman. The Gottman’s are the leading experts on couples’ therapy. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was originally a New Testament metaphor used to describe the end of time. The Gottman Method uses the metaphor to describe four missteps couples make in communication that are predictors of divorce. In couples’ counseling, partners learn how to identify when each is using one of these ineffective communication patterns and to find alternative ways to communicate during conflict.

As we study each of the horsemen, let’s pretend your spouse forgot to empty the dishwasher. I will provide an example of the four missteps and an alternative response that is more effective.

Criticism: Rather than a critique or complaint, you respond by attacking your partner’s character.

Example: “You’re being selfish when you don’t do your share of the work at home. You prioritize what’s important to you over our family.”

Alternative: Use a gentle start-up and stay away from generalized comments about the character of your partner.

You were responsible for emptying the dishwasher and did not do it. I know you’ve had a stressful day and I want to support you during difficult times. Is there a better way to communicate about chores that need to be done?”

Contempt: This horseman takes criticism one step further and is intended to hurt your partner by acting morally superior over them.

Example: “You are so stupid. You can’t even remember to empty the dishwasher. I balance work, the kids’ schedules, and my expectations at home. You basically do nothing all day.”

Alternative: Describe your own feelings and needs rather than your partner’s.

“I’m feeling unappreciated in our relationship when you don’t do the chores you agreed to. Can we brainstorm a way to fix this?”

Defensiveness: This is typically done in response to criticism. In this example, my husband is responding.

Example: “Well, you didn’t sweep and you promised you would do that yesterday!”

Alternative: Take responsibility for your part.

“I forgot to empty the dishwasher. I’m sorry. I can do it tonight.”

Stonewalling: This is usually a response to contempt. The person who feels attacked will stop responding entirely.

Example: “Forget it. I can’t do anything right. I’m leaving.”

Alternative: Self-soothe, ask for a break, and reassure your partner that you will come back to the conversation soon.

“I’m feeling really overwhelmed by this conversation. I’m going to go for a run to collect my thoughts and then I can talk about this.”

If you recognize yourself in any of the four horsemen, don’t panic! All people have tough moments and make these communication mistakes – even therapists! We also have the option to change communication in our relationships.

For more information on the four horsemen, you can visit The Gottman Institute website:


If you or someone you know needs couples’ counseling, Reverence Counseling would love to support you!

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