The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse for Relationships

The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse for Relationships

There we were, in the cycle again. My husband (Jake) and I had always struggled with this cycle. He and I would fight over the littlest things. It drove me nuts! Here is what it looked like for us:

  1. We would be disagreeing on how to wash the dishes.
  2. We would both feel frustrated with the expectations and outcomes with washing dishes.
  3. I would become critical of the way Jake wanted the dishes to be done.
  4. Jake would shut down and stop engaging in the conversation.
  5. I would feel hurt with the breakdown in communication.
  6. He would feel like he wasn’t important enough to have a voice. 
  7. And we would go around in circles. 


Any of you been in this crazy breakdown in conflict? If you answered ‘yes’, then I want you to know that you are not alone. 

Now while there are a lot of ways to get out of these cycles, one of the things we need to be aware of is what we need to NOT do. 

According to Drs. John & Julie Gottman from the Gottman Institute, there are 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse for marriages. These four things, if they are present in a relationship, and not dealt with appropriately, then the relationship is doomed to fail. Thankfully, the Gottmans have also developed the antidote to these four horsemen, and we will go over each of them.


Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for Relationships

  1. Criticism
  2. Contempt
  3. Defensiveness
  4. Stonewalling


Here is a quick video from the Gottman Institute, who does all of the research on these relationship patterns:

The Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

  1. Gentle Start Up
  2. Build a Culture of Appreciation
  3. Responsibility
  4. Psychological Self-Soothing


1. Criticism

Criticism is often misunderstood in our society, because it can be applied in so many ways. 

In the midst of relationships, criticism becomes detrimental when it is attacking the personality or character of you or your partner. 

Criticism as the horseman looks like insults, slurs, labeling your partner as “weak” or “pitiful”. It most often comes from a place of trying to prove that you know better than your partner. 


The Antidote to Criticism: A Gentle Start Up

Criticism can start when we are trying to complain about a behavior. But then it can spiral in the midst of emotional conflict. 

To avoid the attacking of your partner’s character, you need to begin with a gentle start up. Focus on answering the questions, “What do I feel? What do I need?”

To do this, you will need to use I-statements, and you will need to use them correctly. You can learn more about how to effectively use I-statements in this blog

It is through the use of I-statements that we avoid blaming a person, attacking their character. Instead we focus on building the relationship up.


2. Contempt

According to Dr. John Gottman, this is the most dangerous of the 4 horsemen. In his research, Dr. John Gottman found that when contempt was present in a relationship, it was the greatest predicter of divorce. 

Contempt comes from a belief that you are morally superior to your partner. 

It can look like sarcasm, eye-rolling, sneering, or hostile humor. When you treat your partner with contempt, you are trying to make them feel smaller than a bug, squashable and insignificant. 

If you find yourself treating your partner with contempt, you will need to do a lot of work to heal your relationship.

Thankfully, the Gottmans have found the solution. 


The Antidote to Contempt: Creating a Culture of Appreciation

In a word: Gratitude. Expressing appreciation for the positive qualities that your partner possesses. Verbally acknowledging your partners positive actions and the wonderful things they bring to the relationship. 

However, expressing gratitude once in a while does not create the culture of appreciation you need to overcome contempt. It must be done often, and with the smallest things. 

If you regularly express gratitude, show your appreciation, for the little ways your partner brings light to your life, THAT is when you are creating the culture in your relationship. 

When you notice and verbally acknowledge the little things your partner does, and you do this often, you will create the buffer needed against negative thoughts and emotions that can arise during conflict. That is how you will keep contempt out of your relationship. 

But there is a caveat to expressing gratitude: it MUST BE GENUINE. If you fake it, if you sarcastically make comments, you actually feed contempt and do nothing to grow a culture of appreciation. Like I said, it will be a lot of work.

But let me be the first to tell you, it is OH SO WORTH IT!


3. Defensiveness 

Defensiveness is when you or your partner play the victim in order to avoid being attacked and shift blame towards the other person. 

Defensiveness is a form of self-protection by creating a narrative that you are the righteous one, that you are the martyr for the greater good. That your partner is the reason you suffer, that you are the victim. 

The thing about defensiveness though? It never helps to solve the problem you are facing. In fact, it makes things worse because you are placing all of the blame on your partner. 


The Antidote to Defensiveness: Responsibility

When we accept responsibility for the part we play in conflict (no matter how small or large), we shift our mindset to a team focus. 

Instead of thinking about and focusing on how your relationship can serve you, you have to think about how you both as a team can overcome these struggles. 

Accepting responsibility also helps to alleviate tension for your partner, because they do not feel the need to defend themselves in order to not take on all of the blame. 

From this point, you can both work together to overcome the struggles you are facing in your relationship. 


4. Stonewalling

This one was my husband’s go-to when our conflict was knarly. 

Stonewalling is when you completely withdraw from the conflict. This can be through just shutting down and no longer engaging in the conversation, by walking away without so much as a word. Ignoring your partner completely in order to convey your disapproval. 

With stonewalling, it isn’t for just a moment, it is to end the conversation this way. To avoid the conflict all together. 

This is often a coping mechanism for people who are emotionally overwhelmed with the situation. Most often, if you stonewall, you are experiencing increased heart rates, stress hormone dumps, or even the survival fight-flight-freeze response. 

In this situation, what is needed is not a new way of communication, but a moment to cool off and calm down with the intention of eventually returning to the conversation. 


The Antidote to Stonewalling: Psychological Self-Soothing

When you find yourself stonewalling, what you need is a break. But it can’t just be you shut down and take the break. You need to communicate it to your partner that you just need to calm down or cool off before you finish the conversation. 

For my husband, it was hard for him to recognize how badly he needed the break, because earlier in life he was often forced to stay in conversations he wasn’t capable of thinking clearly in. 

It took both of us being on the same page to make this easier for Jake. He needed to be able to share when he needed to cool off, and I needed to trust that we would finish the conversation. 

So we came up with time limits. Jake will let me know whether he needs 30 minutes or a full day to sooth and distract himself. And then he will come back to me when he is calm and ready to have a good conversation. 

During the time that you take a break, you need to focus on soothing and distracting yourself. Whether it is taking a nap, getting a snack (hangry should be a diagnosable disorder sometimes), reading a book, playing a video game. It doesn’t matter what the distraction is, as long as you do not spend the time simmering and boiling about what got you riled up. 

Do not play the victim in your head. Do not become critical or contemptuous when you are taking the break. Focus on getting your control back for your thoughts and your body. 


So now you know! You know what to avoid. You understand the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse for relationships. And you know what to do to keep those horsemen from destroying your relationship. 

And when you know more, you can do better. 

So go and create a relationship that brings joy and fulfillment to your life! 


And always remember, it may be your battle, but you don't have to fight it alone. 


Take care, friends!

Alisha Sweyd


Alisha is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is also the Director and Co-Founder of Code 3 Counseling. Alisha specializes in working with first responder couples. You can contact her through our website. 

*This does NOT apply to people in domestic violence relationships. If you or your spouse are being put in physical/emotional danger, you need to seek crisis support services, such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

If you find that this exercise or these conversations brought up some stuff you are struggling with, either individually or in your relationship, please do not hesitate to reach out to us for help. We are here to support you, and we understand that this can be a challenging issue to face.