4 Ways Relationships Break: The Four Horsemen

Intimate relationships can form a bulk of our life’s happiness. Whether you’re married or merely dating, it will always be preferable to stay in a relationship that is loving and kind.

Dr. John Gottman has been studying relationships since the 1980s, and has noticed key predictors that either lead to divorce or severe unhappiness among partners. What makes his relationship studies more credible are their longitudinal nature (he studies the same couples for many years). The longest couple he has studied has lasted for up to 20 years!

One of the factors he uses until now to judge divorce is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was originally  a metaphor from the olden times that indicated the end was near. They consisted of War, Famine, Death & Conquest. However, Gottman uses the metaphor differently, instead referring  to communication styles that indicate a relationship’s end.

Behold, the Four Horses of A-couple-lypse! *laughs alone*

They are labeled as: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. According to Gottman, having the Four Horsemen predicted early divorcing among married couples (an average of 5.6 years after the wedding). In short, it would be preferable to be free from their influence!

Try to see if any of these Horsemen are a familiar sight:

1. Criticism

We talk about criticism that is directed at our partner’s character or personality, not at behavior. Oftentimes, criticisms come in the form of negative labels and judgment.

Criticism is usually the first Horseman to enter the picture.

Let’s use the example of the married couple, Dig and Vick:

Dig has been working the whole day to make ends meet, and returns home hungry. He sees no dinner prepared on the table though. An invisible fuse blows up in his mind.

“You always forget to prepare dinner! You can’t be trusted to do anything right,” says Dig angrily.

Unfortunately, this kind of criticism is less likely to get what Dig wants, food on his belly and understanding from his partner. At best, Vick will quickly comply feeling miserable.

2. Defensiveness

When bombarded by a series of criticisms, we sometimes try to soften the blows and come up with all kinds of excuses. However, our excuses push us away from responsibility, and consequently from lasting solutions.

Guess which person is being defensive.

As Vick hears Dig’s criticisms, she feels offended.  She retorts, “I’m taking a short break! And besides, it’s not like you get hungry from sitting and staring at computers the whole day!”

As Vick becomes defensive, she tries to guard herself from the blow, and deal it the other way around. This Horseman often gives the implicit message: “I’m the problem? Obviously it’s you!”

3. Contempt

Contempt is the feeling that the other person is worthless and unworthy of respect. Consequently, it is toxic to relationships and must be taken away immediately. When a person has contempt towards another, the communication that follows is truly mean and disrespectful. Never will a person with contempt try to reconcile.

Dig expresses contempt as he yells back to Vick, “You think that little about my work?  I pay for most of our bills while you lay around here doing nothing. Idiot!”

Contempt poisons any relationship to bits
See that single lip corner curling? Contempt isn’t very pleasing to look at.

Contempt also manifests in relationships through these forms :

  • sarcasm
  • mockery
  • name calling
  • eye rolling
  • cynicism

The presence of contempt in Gottman’s experiment predicted over 90% of divorces in married couples after 3 years! Of course, if you live in a society where culture forbids divorce, the worst outcome can be severe unhappiness and constant wounds to your self-worth.

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling is the refusal to communicate in the relationship. This can come in the form of acting busy, not paying attention, or giving the silent treatment. Lifeless one word replies are also common.

Sometimes, stone walls can be easier companions than stonewallers.

This form of emotional withdrawal can be tempting for some (especially for guys), since it provides a quick escape when arguments becomes too overwhelming.

Unfortunately, stonewalling can have the appearance of rejection to your partner, and will put you in an even worse position. Seeing your partner intentionally ignoring you can be annoying. Seeing it happen repeatedly can be maddening!

It  should be the least common though among the Four Horsemen. Still, it begins to appear more and more as the other Horsemen plague the relationship.


These threatening signs in your relationship don’t  have to mean the end though. Conflict is an inevitable part of human relationships. Even the happiest couples experience the Horsemen at times. However, what separates the masters  from the disasters is how they manage these conflicts.

Ultimately, a culture of respect is needed the most when we are tempted to blurt away cruel words. Hopefully, you have not found much of the Horsemen lingering in your relationship. Nevertheless, awareness is always the first step to change.


Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce? Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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1 thought on “4 Ways Relationships Break: The Four Horsemen”

  • Hahaha. I like how you make Dig & Vick as examples. Haha. There names are funny and sounds like… HAHA.
    Great post by the way!!

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