The Four Horsemen of Relationships

Dr. John Gottman is a professor, psychologist, and therapist known for his work and research on marital stability and relationship analysis. Although he finds that every marriage is different and faces different obstacles, Gottman noticed four characteristics in relationships that are indicators of major issues and are predictors of a suffering marriage. The four characteristics are referred to as the “four horsemen” of relationships and are as follows:


Instead of making a complaint about a specific behavior or instance, criticism attacks the character of a partner. Criticism can make a person feel hurt, broken, and inadequate. It lowers self-esteem and leads to worse relationship patterns. Rather than criticizing, a person should voice complaints by explaining how it makes them feel and how they would like the behavior to change. For example, criticism would sound something like, “You are always late. You are inconsiderate.” As an alternative, try to voice a complaint by saying something like, “I feel hurt when I am left waiting. Can we both be at the restaurant by six tonight?”


Defensiveness is a protective measure usually employed as a response to criticism. People get defensive when they are trying to avoid direct blame. The problem with defensiveness is that it does not solve conflicts and it only furthers conflict escalation. Instead of projecting the blame onto their partner, a person should try to accept some of the responsibility for the complaint at hand. For example, defensiveness sounds something like, “I am not always late. You are just incredibly impatient.” Instead, try to acknowledge the feelings your partner has voiced by saying, “I understand how you feel when I am late, and I will work on being to dinner on time.”


Contempt is often thought of as the most dangerous horseman for a relationship. Contempt is used to demean character, and it shows disdain for who they are as a person. Relationships rely on admiration and friendship. Contempt eliminates both. People often show contempt through mocking, eye rolling, and name-calling. Instead of belittling your partner, you should try to create an environment of admiration and respect. For example, contempt would sound something like, “You are so stupid.” Instead, a person should build their partner up by saying something like, “You did such a good job with dinner tonight.”


Stonewalling is another protective mechanism. It occurs when a person withdraws from a conflict, either physically or mentally. A stonewaller will either get up and leave the conversation completely or will mentally checkout and close off. While it seems that this individual may not care about the situation, they are probably so overwhelmed by emotion that stonewalling is their way to try to calm down. Stonewalling is ineffective because it only avoids communicating about and fixing a problem, usually leading to a buildup of issues. Instead of withdrawing from conflict, a person should try asking for a short break to calm down before returning to the problem at hand.

If you have experienced any of the above characteristics in yourself or your partner, know that your relationship is not doomed. Kathleen Snyder is a Marriage and Family Therapist who has devoted her professional career to helping couples work through a variety of issues, including the four horsemen of relationships. If you and your partner are ready to change your relationship, contact Kathleen Snyder, MFT today. Call (512) 659-8600.