4 Horsemen in Relationships and How to Stop Them

4 Horsemen in Relationships and How to Stop Them

Every relationship hits rough patches. But there are four toxic patterns many couples fall into when they argue. They’re called the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They’re common, and they predict divorce if they hang around. Find out how to recognize and stop them.

The key to a better relationship is how well you recognize these 4 toxic blocks to emotional connection, and fix them.

Recognize Bad Advice

Most well meant advice on how to handle conflict doesn’t help you deal with emotional disconnection.

When you were growing up, how many times did you hear someone say:

“If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all!”

“If you are right, you never have to say you are, “Sorry.”

“Just ignore them, and they will stop.”

 “Stick and stones can break your bones, but names can never hurt you.”

Sometimes we put too much emphasis on being “nice,” at the expense of saying what you need. Too often, we’re told to disregard our human pain when in conflict with others. In relationships, we need tools to gently explore and name what we feel inside, or notice in someone else.

When we hit a rough patch, we may try to hide our longing to be seen and accepted, until we can’t anymore. Then we explode in frustration. Couples ask, “How can I stop arguing with my spouse? Why can’t we communicate?”

The Four Horsemen According to Gottman

Dr. John Gottman, a renowned researcher of marriage and relationships, spent years studying patterns of emotional behavior between partners.

He found four behaviors that greatly raise a couple’s risk of divorce. He called them  “the Four Horsemen” of the apocalypse for a relationship.

They are:

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

If unchecked, they can ruin a relationship. But they don’t have to.

How to Fight the Four Horsemen that Destroy Relationships

Yes, you can save your relationship.

Once you recognize the Four Horsemen, you can better see them for what they are. They are false guides for riding out a rough patch in your relationship.

Here’s why:


Criticism attacks a partner’s personality or habits. Unlike a complaint, which expresses your displeasure with a particular, identifiable action, criticism rejects another’s overall character.

Example: “You don’t care about the people in your life. You are so selfish!”

Try this tool: Curiosity

Why curiosity: Criticism does not turn attention to what you need or want. Neutral curiosity helps. What would happen if you explained your hurt, without placing blame on your partner?

Example: “I am overwhelmed by all these chores. I want your help, but you haven’t offered, and I don’t know what that means. I need to know you care about me. What is going on?”


Contempt is when one person makes fun of another out of spite. It resembles the behavior of a schoolyard bully.

Example: “Look at you! Shoving another piece of cake into your mouth. You look like a pig.”

Try this tool: Compassion

Why Compassion: Replace contempt with expressions of respect and concern for the other person or your relationship.

Example: “I see half the cake is gone. And you’re so quiet lately. I am wondering if you are okay. I’m worried about you.”


Defensiveness occurs as a way to avoid rejection and blame. Instead of apologizing or addressing the hurt and what happened, the accused tries excuses, changing the subject, or criticizing in return.

Example: “No, I didn’t have time to go to the supermarket! I’ve been working all day. Why didn’t you go? You had time to go out and buy that expensive bag without telling me!”

Try This Tool: Admit What Happened

Why admit what you feel instead. Saying how your partner’s experience affects you makes your loved one feel seen and heard. An apology is a great way to let your empathy and concern to shine through.

Example: “I know we both work hard. Sometimes I’m too tired to be as thoughtful as I want to be. Next time I’ll tell you if I can’t make it to the store, or before I buy something expensive.”


Stonewalling can be an act of self-defense, or at times, hostility. It happens when one partner shuts down and either ignores the other person, or refuses to talk about a particular issue.  

Example: “Talk to me. Talk to me! Why do you just sit there? Wait, where are you going?”

Try This Tool: Self-Soothing

Why self-soothing: Defeating stonewalling can be a challenge. When conflict implodes into silence, recognize each person needs to calm down.

Humans have an in-born fight or flight response. It changes our body chemistry and shuts down the parts we use to think and talk rationally. Take at least 20 minutes for anger or strong emotions to subside.

Example: “Give me about half an hour to calm down. I care about us, but I need to cool off before I can talk about it.”

Many arguments are not really about the immediate issue, such as errands, chores, spending or your sex life. It’s about the question: “Are you there for me?”

We Care More, Fight Less When We Know We Matter

We need to know we matter to our loved one. Psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson explains it this way:

Too often, what couples do not see is that most fights are really protests over emotional disconnection.

So many of us start life with faulty tools for handling our own emotions, let alone fixing a troubled relationship.

Learning new tools for emotional awareness takes dedication! Working with a licensed therapist can help — especially a therapist trained in Emotionally Focused therapy (EFT). This training helps couples develop tools for noticing disconnection, and offering emotional connection. Disconnection is fixable!

Seeing our own need for connection in our relationship is a great first step. When you notice one of the Four Horsemen moving into your emotional world, you can learn to steer away.

Each partner needs to know the relationship is important to the other. As a couple, you can find new ways to show it. The better you can see and respond to the deeper needs in each other, the happier and smoother your relationship will be.

Learn more about the big picture of emotional connection in Hold Me Tight and EFT Workshops. They are coming to Mount Vernon Family Therapy soon. Get workshop details by email — with no obligation to sign up.

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