Why Gottman’s Four Horsemen (Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt & Stonewalling) Are So Destructive To A Happy Marriage

If you have ever wondered what indicators signal the beginning of the end of a relationship, you’re not alone.  Many people – both laymen and professionals – have pondered the same question, and after over four decades of research, Dr. John Gottman presented the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, describing the four most common behaviors that characterize a spiraling marriage.  When you learn about these behaviors you can utilize techniques to stop them in their tracks and turn your whole relationship around.

Horsemen #1: Criticism

Often, the first horseman to make an appearance is criticism.  That’s a word we hear frequently, so it may not sound like such a harbinger of disaster.  And it’s true that not everything commonly labeled “criticism” is actually a horseman – for example, if your partner is consistently late, it may just be good communication to say gently, “I feel frustrated when you arrive late to events we’ve planned in advance.”  A statement like that leaves room for a conversation.  

But when comments about a partner’s behaviors become generalized to his or her personality (“You’re always late!  You never think about me!”), that is no longer constructive.

Criticism erodes its target’s psyche by making him feel unloved and misunderstood.  It also erodes the relationship, because it opens the door to let the other horsemen in. 

If your partner is consistently criticized in this way, they may feel attacked and may react defensively (and that’s another horseman!), setting off a vicious cycle in which criticism and its “friends” appear more and more often and escalating a situation that started off as fairly low-level to one that may only be salvageable with intervention from outside sources.

However, if you have noticed this horseman’s activity in your relationship, that doesn’t mean you should write your marriage off.  There is a simple and logical way to combat criticism and heal your relationship, and it’s called the “gentle start-up.”

For example, Mary notices that her husband John has not come to her family reunion, even though he said months ago that he would.  She is filled with frustration, and her first instinct is to criticize: “John, we planned this three months ago. I’m so done with you.  You’re so inconsiderate; you never think about what I need.”  But instead says, “John, I feel frustrated and missed your support when you didn’t show up.  Is there something we can do to ensure you show up next time?”

This example demonstrates the basic pattern of all gentle start-ups: an “I” statement describing a feeling and then a need.  The “I” part is critical, because it ensures that the partner doesn’t feel blamed or attacked.

Horsemen #2: Defensiveness

Defensiveness might be best defined as an unwarranted reaction.  Many times it crops up in response to reasonable complaints, and it usually takes the form of blaming and castigating the other person.

Take Mary and John for example.  Mary is upset that John did not attend the family reunion as he promised he would, and she voices this frustration.  John responds: “You should’ve known I would be busy that day!  I told you there would be a lot going on at work that week!  You should’ve paid more attention.  You weren’t really listening to me.” 

That’s one typical example of defensiveness – putting up a barrier to stop the accountability that’s heading one’s way and redirecting it back towards the other partner.  

Defensiveness is the opening move of the blame game, which, as most of us know from experience, can stretch on forever with no resolution in sight.  It’s also another gateway horseman, just like criticism, paving the way for criticism and contempt to rear their ugly heads.

But defensiveness, too, has its solution; combating defensiveness means accepting responsibility.  By graciously receiving the accountability that is being offered to you, you halt the blame game and open the floor for a discussion.  This doesn’t mean you need to take the fall for everything, but when you take responsibility for even part of the situation, you demonstrate maturity, sensitivity, and understanding, leaving a space for a conversation.

Here’s how it might play out in John and Mary’s case.  When Mary expresses her wish that John had shown up to the reunion, John can say, “You’re right.  I did say I would try to be there, and in the end I wasn’t.  I’m sorry.”  No excuses, no rationalizations, no blame displacement.  Just the acknowledgement and apology.  Explanations can come later.

You may struggle with this solution because you might have been raised in a society that promotes assertiveness and self-confidence, and somewhere along the way you may begin to believe that an admission of guilt or wrong contradicts these characteristics. 

Sometimes it may be difficult to accept responsibility because of pride and desire to maintain as positive an image of yourselves as possible.  However, deep down, there is no contradiction between admission of wrong and assertiveness.  

They’re just two sides of a coin you might call emotional honesty.  By the same token, nobody is perfect, so far from detracting from your self-image, you can focus on ability to recognize imperfections as actually a strength and cultivate skills in this area.

Horseman #3: Contempt

Contempt is easily the worst of the bunch – it’s been shown to be the number one predictor of divorce.  Dr. John Gottman called it “sulfuric acid for love.”  But what’s so bad about contempt?

Although it can come in many forms (name-calling, mimicking, dismissive body language like eye-rolling, etc.), contempt always produces the same effect: disconnect.  A discussion can only be conducted between equals, so when one partner treats the other with a lack of respect, it offsets the even footing and shuts down any possibility of productive discussion.  

Because treating a partner with contempt connotes a condescension and disregard, it can further complicate situations that are already delicate, because any problems that crop up (and they will!  And that’s normal – every relationship has its bumps) will not be worked through with a calm, mature conversation.

Fortunately, the appearance of contempt doesn’t have to mean the end of the road.  In order to uproot contempt from your marriage, Dr. Julie Gottman says, you must build a culture of appreciation.  Take the time to notice the good things about your partner – good behaviors or even just good characteristics you attribute to him or her.  Where appreciation flourishes, respect soon follows, and when you communicate with your partner, that respect will show through.  People tend to treat you the way you treat them, so your partner is likely to react in kind.

Why Is Contempt So Damaging To A Relationship?

Contempt expresses a lack of respect and appreciation for your partner on a very deep level. When you express contempt it sends a clear message and communicates, “I don’t care about you and your feelings”. 

There are severe consequences in a relationship when a partner is contemptuous. 

The partner who receives contempt will likely feel deeply disrespected, embarrassed and ridiculed. These interactions create a relationship based on retaliation, a desire to strike back or withdraw from the relationship. 

When your partner disregards you, your feelings and your thoughts, the level of contempt is eroding the foundation and leaving the relationship in shambles. Contempt doesn’t just erode the connection and security of the relationship, but it destroys trust, intimacy and love. 

Contempt also creates emotional pain that significantly takes a toll on the well-being of the relationship.  The emotional toil will be resentment, pain, hate and disgust. 

Therefore, it is vital that you recognize the contemptuous behavior and actively work to erase it from your interactions. You will need to learn how to foster trust, compassion and appreciation and build an enduring relationship.

Horseman #4: Stonewalling

On the outside, a “stonewaller” may not seem to be experiencing any emotions at all, which his or her partner may find exasperating or infuriating.  In reality, though, a stonewaller is processing an overload of emotions – so many, in fact, that they shut down and disengaged from the conflict that is currently brewing.  As a result of this psychological turmoil, it is very likely that the person will experience physical symptoms like increased heart rate and raised levels of stress hormones and possibly even a fight-or-flight response.  The stress is real, and it shows on the body.

Although it’s completely understandable that stonewalling most often occurs in the middle of intense discussions, it can be especially damaging for that very reason.  When you are trying to talk something through with your partner, and your partner suddenly becomes completely unavailable (whether occupying him- or herself with something else, tuning out, or just flat out ignoring you), you may feel like you’re banging your head against a wall (hence “stonewalling”), and the situation only escalates from there.  

There are few things more aggravating than trying to “tango” with someone who won’t dance, and even if the stonewalling partner does yield to your efforts, conversation from that point on is between two people under a lot of stress, and it will suffer in rationality, maturity, and sensitivity because of that.  

It’s important to understand, though, that a stonewaller often isn’t behaving like this maliciously.  On the contrary, your partner thinks that by remaining quiet that will avoid an argument.  And when this technique backfires, your partner may be left wondering if there are any good options and/or feel trapped.

It’s true that there is some merit to dropping the conversation, but the successful method of stopping differs from stonewalling in a few important ways.  For one thing, if you and your partner agree on a general prearranged signal to communicate when one of you is feeling overwhelmed by a conversation and needs a break, all the emotional tension of stonewalling can be avoided.  

Your signal can be a hand gesture, like the “time-out” sign, or even just an honest piece of communication: “I’m feeling overwhelmed and need a break.  Let’s continue this conversation later.”

Now you have some time to yourself to do some physiological self-soothing, taking at least twenty minutes to occupy yourself with something calming and distracting.  Physiological symptoms will resolve themselves in that time window, and when you return to the discussion, it will be with a clear head, which is much more likely to lead to a productive end result.

Why Are The 4 Horsemen Bad For A Relationship

Dr. Gottman’s extensive research found that the four horsemen permeated the “disaster couples” and wreaked havoc on their relationship. 

Criticism leads to resentment and defensiveness, defensiveness leads to walls being put up to protect you from your partner, contempt leads to disrespect and divorce and stonewalling stops all conversation and connection. 

The four horsemen slowly, and overtime, chip away at any progress you make over time. It’s as if any effort in building your relationship is ineffective, like building a house on quicksand. The turmoil that it creates impacts all aspects of your relationship and does not allow for positive actions and gestures to improve your situation. It’s exhausting and challenging to try to improve your relationship and develop solutions as you destroy your relationship at the same time.

The four horsemen sabotage your efforts, growth and connection. It is destructive and leaves your relationship vulnerable to negativity, resentment and anger. 

Isn’t Fighting Normal In A Long Term Relationship?

It’s normal for couples to fight. All partners disagree and have different perspectives and opinions. It’s the way that they disagree and how they treat each other during these disagreements that will affect their relationship in the short and long term. It’s crucial to notice how you handle conflict and be aware of how you treat each other during those disagreements. 

The four horsemen take the level and severity of fighting to the nth degree. The wear and tear that criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling have on your relationship can become deeply ingrained over time, making it difficult to reverse the damage. 

In some cases, couples can not recover from constant and longstanding levels of the four horsemen. The cumulative impact of them erodes the trust and connection, making it increasingly challenging to repair the relationship.

Despite your best efforts to change your dynamics and patterns of communication, the negative impact may be too extensive to recover. 

Occasional fights are common occurrences in long term relationships, but it is vital that you learn ways to manage conflict in a healthy and constructive manner.

When you learn how to address conflict with open communication, empathy, respect you can address Gottman’s Four Horsemen, Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling which rids your relationship of a sense of insensitivity, unfairness,  and insecurity. 

Lisa can help you learn the Gottman tools needed to build a happy and successful relationship. 

Additional reading to support your relationship as you explore options for couples therapy and healing:

What Causes Resentment In A Marriage (Plus How You Can Heal Resentment In Yours)

How Contempt In Your Relationship Is Driving A Deep Wedge Between You

How Long Is Too Long Without Sex In A Relationship?

How Often Do Couples Fight And Should You Be Concerned?

Stuck In A One-Sided Relationship? Here’s How To Talk About It So Resentment Doesn’t Take Over


Lisa Rabinowitz

Lisa Rabinowitz, LCPC is a certified Gottman therapist working with couples in the US and internationally. Lisa has worked for many years with couples who have both diagnosed and undiagnosed ADHD. Her certifications and experience uniquely qualify her to support couples with relationship challenges that often feel insurmountable. Please reach out for a free 20-minute consultation with Lisa today.

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