Avoiding The “Four Horsemen” in Relationships

Difficulty: Intensive | Frequency: Variable | Duration: Variable
(12 member ratings)

Time Required

20 minutes to read about the “four horsemen.” Then the amount of time to deploy a constructive strategy will depend on the nature of the conflict; the frequency will depend on how often you experience conflict in your relationship. One goal could be to try to use one of these positive strategies—or at least assess the quality of your conflict—once per month.

How to Do It

1. Read the descriptions of the “four horsemen” below and consider whether you and/or your partner ever engage in any of these behaviors during conflicts.

2. Read the descriptions of the constructive alternatives that can be used in place of the “four horsemen” and consider how you might put these behaviors into practice, if you have not already.

3. The next time you find yourself in a conflict with your partner, make an active effort to avoid the “four horsemen” and engage in more constructive behaviors instead. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you slip up—it can be challenging to stay focused during the heat of an argument, and these habits can take time to change.

4. After the conflict, make a note of how things went. Did you or your partner engage in any of the “four horsemen” behaviors, and if so, did you catch yourself and try to take a different approach during the conflict? What went well, and what could you improve for next time?

5. If/when you feel comfortable, you could invite your partner to participate with you in this practice. 

The Four Horsemen

1. Criticism. Some forms of criticism are constructive, but in this case criticism refers to making negative judgments or proclamations about your partner in extreme, absolute terms. A sign that you may be engaging in this more harmful form of criticism is if you catch yourself using terms like “never” and always”—for example, “You never think about anyone but yourself!” or, “You are always so stubborn!”

Note that criticism itself is not necessarily a recipe for relationship failure—the problem with criticism is that excessive or extreme criticism can, over time, lead to the more destructive “horsemen.”

Constructive alternative: There’s nothing wrong with voicing concerns and complaints in a relationship, but try to do so in a way that focuses on your own feelings (and how your partner’s behavior affects you)—for instance, by making “I” statements, like “I feel lonely when you come home late for dinner”—and mentions specific negative behaviors rather than making global attacks on his or her entire personality (“I feel neglected when you make plans without me” rather than “You are so inconsiderate!”). See the Active Listening practice for more suggestions along these lines.

2. Contempt. Contempt is a more destructive form of criticism that involves treating your partner with disrespect, disgust, condescension, or ridicule. It may involve mean-spirited sarcasm, mockery, eye-rolling, sneering, or name-calling. Contempt can grow over time when a person focuses on the qualities they dislike in their partner and builds up these qualities in their mind.

Constructive alternative: Instead of keeping score of all of your partner’s flaws, consider their positive qualities and the things you appreciate most about them. In fact, it may help to write a list of these qualities and return to it when you need a reminder.

3. Defensiveness. Defensiveness tends to arise when people feel criticized or attacked; it involves making excuses to avoid taking responsibility, or even deflecting blame onto your partner. If you hear yourself saying “I didn’t do anything wrong,” or blaming your partner for something else after he or she has leveled a complaint against you, ask yourself whether this is really the case. Even if your partner made some mistakes, that doesn’t free you from responsibility for things you could have done differently as well. The problem with defensiveness is that it communicates to your partner that you aren’t really listening to her or taking his concerns seriously. And by introducing new grievances, it can also exacerbate the conflict by making your partner feel attacked and defensive.

Constructive alternative: Take the time to hear your partner out and take responsibility when appropriate. A simple, genuine apology can go a long way.

4. Stonewalling. Stonewalling involves putting up a (metaphorical) wall between you and your partner by withdrawing, shutting down, and physically and emotionally distancing yourself from your partner. An example of stonewalling is to give your partner the “silent treatment” or to abruptly leave without telling your partner where you’re going. Stonewalling can sometimes result when the first three “horsemen” accumulate and become overwhelming. Stonewalling is especially destructive to relationships because it can make one’s partner feel abandoned and rejected.

Constructive alternative: If you need time out to take a few deep breaths and collect your thoughts, let your partner know, and then return to the conversation when you’re ready. This way, your partner will understand that you are taking care of yourself, not trying to reject him.

Difficulty: Intensive | Frequency: Variable | Duration: Variable
(12 member ratings)

Why You Should Try It

All couples experience conflict, but researchers have found that how partners deal with this conflict has major implications for the longevity of their relationship. In particular, leading couples researcher John Gottman and his colleagues have identified four specific behaviors, which they call the “four horsemen of the apocalypse, “ that spell doom for couples.

To help you guard against these “four horsemen,” this exercise teaches you to recognize them and consider more constructive alternatives. Understanding the signs of these toxic behaviors is a vital step toward avoiding them and having a healthier response to conflict. 

Difficulty: Intensive | Frequency: Variable | Duration: Variable
(12 member ratings)

Evidence That It Works

Carrere, S., Buehlman, K.T., Coan, J.A., Gottman, J.M., Coan, J.A., and Ruckstuhl, L., (2000). Predicting Marital Stability and Divorce in Newlywed CouplesJournal of Family Psychology, 14(1), 42-58.

A long-term study of 95 newlywed couples found that how they handled conflict between them in a single, brief interaction, recorded in a laboratory, predicted the stability of their relationship four to six years later with 87.5 percent accuracy, and seven to nine years later with 81 percent accuracy. Couples who displayed the “four horsemen” behaviors were significantly more likely to have broken up when the researchers followed up with them years later.

Difficulty: Intensive | Frequency: Variable | Duration: Variable
(12 member ratings)

Why It Works

Most couples experience conflict in their relationship from time to time, and although occasional conflict is not necessarily harmful to a relationship (some research suggests it can even be helpful), conflict can sometimes elicit destructive behaviors that undermine relationship satisfaction. Identifying destructive behaviors is an important first step toward reducing them and replacing them with more constructive behaviors, which can in turn improve communication and increase satisfaction. This process takes time and practice, and in some cases couples may benefit from seeking the support of a relationship counselor

Difficulty: Intensive | Frequency: Variable | Duration: Variable
(12 member ratings)
Difficulty: Intensive | Frequency: Variable | Duration: Variable
(12 member ratings)

For More

Difficulty: Intensive | Frequency: Variable | Duration: Variable
(12 member ratings)

Relationships that avoid the "four horsemen" are most likely to thrive. Do you have a healthy, trusting partnership? Take our Relationship Trust quiz to find out: 

Completion Status

Comments & Reviews

  1. JAMIE HAYNIE
    JAMIE HAYNIE
    December 5, 2017

    This practice is universal for all types of relationships; relationships with family, friends, your team, marriage and so forth. I read this article two weeks ago and I can relate to it so much because I experience these different horseman’s in my relationship and honestly it is stressful, it takes a lot of energy. My partner and I have been together for four years and we have our ups and downs, but lately it feels more like downs and the more we fight the further I feel were losing each other. Our biggest challenge is all for criticism, stonewall, defensiveness, and contemp. We go blow for blow where never physical, but verbally we attack each other character. No one never wants to feel like their being attack, so what you do? You attack back, and you hit below the belt with something that person confides in you because you know that person wouldn’t judge you and you become defensive and you start to scream and holler all the worse things possible. I exercised the four alternative. Instead of calling him out on all his flaws, I consider all the positive things about him. Instead of attacking his character I explain to him that I don’t like how he make me feel unappreciated when I go above and beyond to make him happy. I would shut down and stop talking because I don’t want to argue anymore, and I stonewalled because sometimes its easier to walk away. We both are guilty with emotionally separating ourselves from one another we both start feeling rejected. This is something that you have to keep practicing and it take both people to make the change and it isn’t going to happen over night.

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  6. Anamika Sharma
    Anamika Sharma
    March 1, 2017

    I am often tempted to stonewalling least realising it is deadliest. I think stonewalling also occurs when you are in relationship with a person who is antithesis of you and you find it difficult to find a common ground. Active listening can be very helpful here

  7. Sterling Smith
    Sterling Smith
    September 29, 2016

    It is good to understand your struggles from another source, it feels less critical to read the four horseman. This is a great help in many situations.

  8. Marija Pasanec
    Marija Pasanec
    April 19, 2016

    good

  9. Richwell Cogg
    Richwell Cogg
    February 26, 2016

    Susan, You almost took the words right out of my mouth, because I can also see where the deeper universal principle that can be re-spun into other circumstances.

  10. susan Gilmore
    susan Gilmore
    February 22, 2016

    As a newcomer to this site, it occurs to me that the "Four Horsemen" can be applied to any sort of relationship that elicits these behaviors. I have issues with my daughter and I'm going to do my best to begin this exercise and hopefully complete it. Right now it all seems very overwhelming but perhaps in the morning it will appear far less so. I'm hoping.

  11. numeris@live.com
    numeris@live.com
    February 8, 2016

    It is interesting concept that I will certainly consider in the future.

  12. Poppie42
    Poppie42
    January 13, 2016

    Absolutely fantastic information.

  13. Cassandra tucker
    Cassandra tucker
    September 22, 2015

    Love the 4horsemen! This can be used in any relationship, not just a marital relationship.

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