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The Four Horseman

The Four Horseman

Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, & Stonewalling

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. Dr. Gottman uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship.


The first horseman of the apocalypse is criticism. Criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack. It is an attack on your partner at the core. In effect, you are dismantling his or her whole being when you criticize.

  • Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”
  • Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish! You never think of others! You never think of me!”

If you find that you are your partner are critical of each other, don’t assume your relationship is doomed to fail. The problem with criticism is that, when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen. It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and often causes the perpetrator and victim to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity.


The second horseman is contempt. When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean – treating others with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.

“You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic computer games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid – try to be more pathetic…” 

In his research, Dr. Gottman found that couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.) than others, as their immune systems weaken! Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner – which come to a head in the perpetrator attacking the accused from a position of relative superiority. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce according to Dr. Gottman’s work. It must be eliminated.


The third horseman is defensiveness. We’ve all been defensive. This horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel accused unjustly, we fish for excuses so that our partner will back off. Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take them seriously, trying to get them to buy something that they don’t believe, that we are blowing them off.

  • She: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”
  • He: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”

He not only responds defensively, but turns the table and makes it her fault. A non-defensive response would have been:

“Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. Let me call them right now.” 

Although it is perfectly understandable for the male to defend himself in the example given above, this approach doesn’t have the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner.


The fourth horseman is stonewalling. Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction. In other words, stonewalling is when one person shuts down and closes himself/herself off from the other. It is a lack of responsiveness to your partner and the interaction between the two of you. Rather than confronting the issues (which tend to accumulate!) with our partner, we make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a habit.

Pay close attention the next time you find yourself engaged in a difficult conversation with your partner, a friend, or even with your children. See if you can spot any of The Four Horsemen, and try to observe their effects on the people involved.

Being able to identify The Four Horsemen in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication patterns, you must replace them with healthy, productive ones.


Flooding & Self Soothing

By now you may have realized that most of what the Gottman Method suggests about marital health isn’t rocket science or brain surgery, or even rocket surgery. In fact, it’s pretty standard fare as far as relationship advice goes. Get to know each other. Be kind. Anticipate one another’s needs. Learn to fight fair. You don’t need 40 years of research data to tell you these are good strategies for loving another person.

Dr. Gottman’s research does, however, reveal an aspect of relationship health that is both surprising and unique. It turns out that managing conflict isn’t simply about being aware of and intentional about your thoughts and your words. It’s also about being attuned to the signals being sent to and through your body.

Your physiology plays a huge part in your relationship, particularly in conflict. It plays a role in calmer times as well. (Remember the role of oxytocin in the limerence phase of love.) But with regard to conflict, it’s important that you become attuned to the ways your body and brain are shaping the way you communicate. And when you become aware that arousal is complicating the relationship, the next step is to Practice Self-Soothing.

When in conflict or danger, human beings enter a heightened state of arousal. This arousal has protected our species for millennia. It’s why your hair stands up when you hear things go bump in the night. It’s why you pull your hands away from a hot stove or from a husband who’s been criticizing you for most of the past 45 minutes. This built-in alarm system has a name: Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA). When your body is in DPA, your heart speeds up, blood flow to your gut and kidneys slows down, adrenaline starts to pump, and ultimately you head into the infamous “fight or flight” response.

We all have different tendencies around fight or flight. Some lean into conflict. Others are conflict avoiders. Most of us use some combination of both to keep ourselves safe. Dr. Dan Siegel has added two other responses to the list: faint and freeze. In each case, the body sends all of its attention energy into the cortex of the brain and attention becomes very focused with tunnel-vision and tunnel-hearing. Obviously this makes effective communication difficult.

Stop reading for a minute and imagine a conflict that may have led you into DPA. You may not have been aware of your heart rate, or of your stress hormones, but certainly you’ve experienced a time when you couldn’t focus on whatever the argument was about. Maybe your skin got blotchy. Or tears formed in your eyes. Perhaps you just stopped talking and shut down. Maybe you said the same thing over and over again or your argument becomes suddenly disorganized. For me, the tell-tale sign that I’m in DPA is that my back starts to sweat. I’m lucky that my indicator is so obvious. You might need to pay more attention.

You must learn to pay attention. If you don’t, you’ll waste a lot of time stuck in futile conversations. Have you ever gone running with a friend? How easy was it to carry on a meaningful conversation? Chances are, if you were really running, it was impossible. The fact that your heart rate is elevated at or above around 100 BPM means that you simply cannot process social interaction. When your heart rate gets up to 100 BPM in a relationship setting, that’s called flooding. If you’re not paying attention, flooding leads to erratic communication. Erratic communication leads to the Four Horsemen. The Four Horsemen leads to emotional disengagement and eventually to dissolution of the relationship. It’s a slippery slope indeed.

The antidote to flooding is learning to soothe. In the healthiest relationships, partners help one another soothe, essentially interrupting the pattern trauma caused by DPA. Early in the relationship is a perfect time to get creative about the ways you will do this.

Dr. Gottman suggests using a hand signal – not the one you’re thinking of – to call a timeout when one or both of you realize that flooding is occurring. Those of you who are old enough to have watched Friends may remember Ross and Monica had a special hand signal. That’s the one my wife and I use, and it never fails to shift the argument toward humor. Once you’ve interrupted the negative cascade, you can focus on soothing.

Consider establishing a withdrawal ritual, some formal agreement where you take a break from one another long enough to get your heart rate down and your wits about you. In order for your break to be effective, consider these steps:

  1. Be aware of the timing: Both partners should agree about when to get back together. It should be at least 20 minutes but not more than 24 hours. If you’re truly flooded, you’ll need at least 20 minutes to let your body reset. If you wait longer than 24 hours, you risk avoidance which ultimately gives the conflict more power.
  2. Don’t stew: It’s not helpful at all to use your time away to replay the argument in your mind. Building your case or focusing on the injustice of it all doesn’t serve the larger purpose, which is soothing. These thoughts are distressing and not useful.
  3. Relax yourself: The practice of soothing can take many forms. Maybe you go for a long walk, listen to music, or read a magazine. You might also try deep breathing exercises. Getting control of your breathing is an ideal way to release tension and achieve a relaxed state of mind.

 In the end, you might be really good at reigning in the Four Horsemen, dialoguing about problems, and accepting influence, but if you’re prone to flooding, it’s much harder to manage conflict. When your brain is attuned only to danger and not to opportunity, you’re more likely to attack or get defensive. Learning to soothe opens the door to empathy, positivity, and creativity. Trust me, it’s not rocket surgery.