The Four Horsemen: Relationship Pitfalls to Avoid

February 11, 2021

Reflecting on last year, the importance of relationships really stood out to me. As the world shut down, it was the close connections with friends, family, and colleagues that kept me going.

Intuitively, we know relationships matter. Scientifically, we’re starting to understand just how much.

Research suggests that older people with good social relationships have a 50% greater chance of survival than those with poor relationships.

That’s why I was thrilled to dive deep into a recent episode of Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast where she interviews relationship experts Drs. John and Julie Gottman (thanks Britt for the recco!).

Below, we’ll explore the concept of The Four Horsemen, why avoiding them is critical to maintaining good relationships, and four strategies for overcoming them when they reise.

What Makes a Good Relationship?

This question of what makes a good relationship, especially a good couple, has interested me for many years.

Is it their shared interests or their stark differences? Do people gravitate towards their opposites, or seek familiarity?

Turns out that decades of scientific research has not been able to answer that question. It remains a mystery.

What research has proven, however, is what can ruin a relationship with great efficacy.

Pioneering research led by Dr. John and Julie Gottman has discovered four predictor variables that can predict with up to 90% accuracy the health and longevity of a relationship.

While the research and clinical work of Dr. John Gottman and his wife Dr. Julie Gottman has focused primarily on couples, it seems fair to say that these four variables are important to understand (and avoid) in any relationship in our lives, be it work or personal.

The Four Horsemen

These four variables have been nicknamed The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which is a reference to the story of the Apocalypse in the New Testament.

In essence, these Four Horsemen can signal the demise of a relationship, just as the Four Horsemen of the Bible signified the end of days.

Okay then, so what are they?

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

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find plenty of examples of the Four Horsemen in your own life to examine and work on.

The first step in any behavior change is awareness. Learning about this research has opened my eyes, and I hope it interests you.

Once you’ve established awareness, you can make room for practice.

Let’s break each of them down further, before we discuss a few "antidotes" that you can apply right away.


Criticism attacks the character of the recipient rather than a specific behavior. It’s when we go after who someone is, rather than what they did.

Example: “You’re so selfish”


Contempt is an expression of superiority that can show itself as sarcasm, cynicism, or eye-rolling.

Example: “Ugh, what an idiot”


Defensiveness is any attempt to defend oneself from perceived criticism. It shows up as righteous indignation, counter-attacking, and playing the victim.

Example: “It’s not my fault we’re always late!”


Stonewalling is when one person withdraws from the conversation completely. It usually happens in response to contempt, and when an individual's emotions are flooded.

Example: “Forget it…”

Put it into practice

Whether it’s a loved one, a family member, or a business partner, learning to avoid these negative behavior patterns will surely help you create healthier, happier, and more lasting relationships. Like almost anything in life, practice is essential to starting to master these challenges in your relationships.

If you are ready to face the Four Horsemen, Drs. John and Julie Gottman have a plethora of resources and practices available on their website, including a newly-launched app.

It's helpful to think about the small ways you could incorporate practice into your day-to-day life.

Pick one of the Four Horsemen that most resonates with you, and start there, rather than trying to address all four at once. There are so many different ways to work on this, so what matters is finding a way that works best in your circumstances.

Here are four suggestions from the Gottmans on how you can increase your capacity to overcome the Four Horseman in your life when they arise.

How to Deal with The Four Horsemen

The Antidote to Criticism. Try to talk about your feelings using "I" statements and by stating positive needs. Instead of saying “You’re selfish!”, try “I feel hurt when you don’t share your ice cream with me. Would you please give me a bite in the future?”

The Antidote to Contempt. Treat each other with respect. Actively find ways to express authentic words of appreciation. Practice mindfulness to become aware of negative thought patterns, and counter them factual, positive thoughts.

The Antidote to Defensiveness. Accept responsibility, even for just part of the conflict. By accepting, and offering an apology for your contribution, you can prevent conflicts from escalating.

The Antidote to Stonewalling. Practice self-soothing. When you find yourself “turning off” because you’re overwhelmed or emotionally flooded, the best thing to do is call for a break. Use that break to do something relaxing and distracting, rather than focus on the conflict or strategize your response.

Words of Wisdom

Thanks for reading this far! Take these wise words from Dr. John Gottman as inspiration for your journey.

"Taking responsibility—even for a small part of the problem in communication—presents the opportunity for great repair."

— Dr. John Gottman