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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

If the body of literature on marriage and family research were to open its mouth and tell us one thing to get right to foster and maintain a thriving and flourishing marriage, what would it say? It would emphasize the power of good communication. John Gottman, one of the world’s foremost experts and prolific researchers of marital health (he has spent decades understanding the science), believes that the quality of communication is the best predictive factor of a successful marriage (Gottman, 1994, p. 258). If good communication really is so important for a strong marriage, then it makes sense to learn more about how to practically communicate well.

The first part of learning good communication is identifying bad communication and then remedying it. In this vein, Gottman has given us four toxic communicative patterns, or rather, “disastrous ways of interacting that sabotage your attempts to communicate” (Gottman, 1995, p. 72) that he forebodingly calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They are four specific, cascading manners of communication that are “processes that can quietly begin to corrode your marriage” (p. 68). That is, they are warning signs leading towards dissolution that build upon one another. Each horseman is a precursor for the next, and their severity builds until tension dominates, negativity prevails, and spouses are unable to appreciate their partner’s efforts. Gottman’s four horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (pp. 71- 72). Luckily for us, he details antidotes for each. Each horseman will now be described so it can easily be identified and avoided with a corresponding antidote for each to communicate in a way to reach your partner and to be heard.

Horseman #1: Criticism

Gottman says that “criticism involves attacking someone’s personality or character-rather than a specific behavior-usually with blame” (p. 73). He immediately differentiates criticism from the complaint as he considers the complaint to be “one of the healthiest activities that can occur within marriage” (p. 73). The difference is that a complaint is a confrontation that conveys “anger, displeasure, distress, or other negativity” towards a specific action, whereas criticism is not specific, far more generalized, and directed towards the recipient’s personality or character. It is essentially a globalized ad hominem- an attack of general character rather than a treatment of the issue. Subsequently, complaint uses “I language” that expresses one’s own feelings, while criticism employs “you language” that attacks the other (pp. 75-76).

Example criticism: You didn’t make it to dinner again. It seems like you never do. Are other people really more important to you than me? (It gets personal here with words like ‘you’ and ‘never’).

 Antidote to Criticism: Change up the Language

Use “I” rather than “you” language. It is healthy to criticize. “I” language avoids an immediate attack on your spouse’s personality/character or blaming them. It enables you to convey your feelings and your needs, not that something is wrong with your spouse (Gottman, 2008, p. 145).

Example antidote/complaint: We agreed to have dinner at 6 pm and you didn’t show up tonight. (Factual) I feel upset and hurt that our date didn’t happen. (State your feelings, everyone is entitled to their feelings) I was looking forward to spending time together. (State your needs to your partner).

Horseman #2: Contempt

Contempt is distinct from criticism because it is aimed to “insult and psychologically abuse your partner” (Gottman, 1995, p. 79)by targeting their sense of self. In this way, it is a more biting and caustic version of criticism. Contempt is caused by an overwhelmingly negative and downward thought pattern spiral about how one’s partner is stupid, petty, incompetent, selfish, etc. (p. 79) that conveys a sense of moral superiority (p. 84). Contempt leads to an immediate decay of admiration in which spouses fail to remember any good qualities about the other (p. 85). Contempt is also more vast in its expression. This means it can manifest itself through insults and name-calling, hostile humor, mockery, and body language like rolling the eyes (pp. 80-81). Ultimately, contempt breeds defensiveness in the relationship and is the horseman most predictive of divorce (Gottman, 2008, p. 145).

Example contempt: You didn’t make it to dinner. Again. Did I marry a silhouette of a spouse? You know, you’re really selfish, inconsiderate, and nervy. I deserve better.

Antidote to Contempt: Build an Atmosphere of Honor and Respect

To combat contempt, use precise complaints and express “a healthy dose of admiration” (Gottman, 1995, p. 84). In other words, show gratitude for your partner and treat your spouse how you would like to be treated (Luke 6:31). Gratitude and admiration are positive emotions diametrically opposed to contempt. They create an atmosphere of respect and honor over time if they are commonplace in the relationship. This appreciation allows each partner to see the good in the other (Gottman, 2008, p. 146).  Please see the example above for an example complaint.

Horseman #3: Defensiveness

Defensiveness is an attempt to shield oneself from attacks, which is a natural and understandable response, most commonly to contempt, but occasionally to criticism. When the conflict escalates to the point of defensiveness, the defensive person feels victimized and responds defensively. However, defensiveness further escalates the conflict because it shuts down conversation and produces defensive phrases and attitudes which further agitate the problem. Both parties typically become mutually defensive, trapped in a positive feedback loop (i.e., facilitates/increases defensiveness). That is after spouses have hurled insults at each other, they both feel defensive and behave in ways that increase the likelihood of more insults (and then more defensiveness) because communication and problem solving are obstructed. Defensiveness reveals itself through the denial of responsibility, making excuses, making negative assumptions about your partner’s feelings (i.e., negative mind reading), immediately matching complaints (i.e., cross-complaining), shielding and blaming others, agreeing then negating agreement with a but… (i.e., yes-butting), repeating oneself, and through body language like a fake smile (pp. 85-89).

Example defensiveness in response to receiving criticism/contempt for not making it to dinner: Yes, perhaps I should have been there, but I’m trying to make money to keep the kids clothed. You don’t make any money, so I don’t see any reason why I can’t stay later at work to provide for this family. It’s not like you support me in any way. I know you think you make enough food for dinner, but honestly, I’m almost always hungry after, so I’m not exactly incentivized to be here. (Conflict Escalation)

Antidote to Defensiveness: Take Responsibility

The best way to overcome defensiveness is to take responsibility for the problem, or at least the part of it that belongs to you no matter how small that part is (Gottman, 2008, p. 145). Assuming personal responsibility for your actions decreases defensiveness because personal responsibility leaves you in no position to defend yourself. This is because it necessitates an admission that you have perpetrated a real wrong and are culpable. Additionally, think of your spouse’s rebuff as information strongly expressed rather than a personal attack. This requires genuine openness (Gottman, 1995, pp. 92-93) and humility.

Horseman #4: Stonewalling

Stonewalling occurs when one partner withdraws or disengages from meaningful interaction. This happens when one spouse is physiologically flooded – that is, overwhelmed by marital tension, often stemming from the previous horsemen, and he or she shut down via silence, inattentiveness to the conversation, indifference, or even physical removal. Stonewalling “conveys disapproval, icy distance, and smugness” (p. 94). Most of the time (i.e., 85%), men are the stonewallers (p. 95). In fact, Gottman (2008) identified being a male with a heart rate over 100 bpm as most predictive for stonewalling in heterosexual relationships (p. 146). Men are more physiologically taxed during the confrontation (e.g., having increased heart rate) than women, so may flee the situation more often. However, women have a far stronger and more negative physiological response than men because of being stonewalled. This is a damaging combination that is dangerous to marriages when it becomes habitual (Gottman, 1995, p. 95).

Physiological Soothing: Antidote to Stonewalling

Combating stonewalling is best done via self-soothing to reduce physiological arousal for sustained emotional engagement (Gottman, 2008, p. 146). Practically speaking, this might look like telling your spouse that the issue is very important to you and so are they, but that you need a little bit of time to calm down before trying to talk about it constructively. This antidote recognizes that spouses that shut down are not evil or inconsiderate, but physiologically need a reset before addressing the conflict.


It is easy to see how these horsemen build upon each other and cascade. Criticism easily becomes contempt. Both criticism and contempt breed defensiveness that increases the criticism or contempt, yielding more defensiveness in a feedback loop until one partner is physiologically flooded or overwhelmed and shuts down (i.e., stonewalling). Gottman encourages changing the language (versus criticism), building an atmosphere of respect and admiration (versus contempt), taking responsibility (versus defensiveness), and physiological self-soothing (versus stonewalling) to avoid the destructive conflict escalation and strengthen the marital bond through constructive communication. The horsemen drain the emotional bank account, while the antidotes make deposits into it (Gottman & Gottman, 1999, p. 315).

Scripture makes clear that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39). The marital bond is qualitatively different from other relationships in that it is a metaphor for Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32) and a God-ordained institution (Genesis 2:24). How should we love others, then, especially spouses? Ephesians 4:29 elucidates, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear,” as love is both patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4). How are we to not corrupt and rather build up? One practical answer is to locate the horsemen, mitigate them, and replace them with antidotes. This human action step, in tandem with the indwelling Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11) produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23), empowers us to love our spouses well for flourishing marriages.


Gottman, J. M. (2008). Gottman method couple therapy. Clinical handbook of couple therapy, 4(8), 138-164.

Gottman, J. M., & Gottman, J. S. (1999). The marriage survival kit: A research-based marital therapy. Preventive approaches in couples therapy, 26, 304-330.

Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages fail. The Family Therapy Networker, 18(3), p. 258. Gottman, J., Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1995). Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. Simon and Schuster.