Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen are behaviors that predict divorce to a 93% accuracy. Recognizing them can help you take proactive steps.
If you’ve recently had some challenges in your marriage, you may find yourself asking, “Where is this relationship headed?” Divorce can be a scary word for couples, and it may be nerve-racking to be unsure if you’re on that track.
Dr. John Gottman is a renowned psychologist and relationship expert who’s done decades of participant research on married couples.
He observed four commonalities among relationships he found to be predictors of divorce and called them the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.
According to Gottman, if a combination of these horsemen is present continuously in your marriage, you may be headed to separation or divorce.
But be encouraged: If you both want to stay married, there are antidotes to each horseman and ways to get help.
The Four Horsemen show up in your style of communicating with your partner when, as they say, “Out of the heart the mouth speaks.”
Here’s what to look for:
Criticism occurs when you or your partner attacks the other’s character, beliefs, personality, appearance, or actions. Criticism uses absolute or superlative statements, which is different from voicing how you feel or what you think.
What criticism sounds like
“You always look so sloppy and frumpy. I bet you don’t even have a plan for today. Are you really this lazy?”
Contempt is a more severe escalation of criticism. If you and your partner are communicating with contempt, it may come from a place where you feel superior over your partner and you speak or act in a condescending way to them.
Contempt shows up in various communication behaviors, such as:
- disrespectful language
What contempt sounds like
“I really hate people like you. It’s a wonder you’ve survived this long, probably thanks to me. I’m sick and tired of you always acting this way! You aren’t good for anything!”
According to Gottman’s research from 1994, contempt is the No. 1 predictor of divorce within the first 6 years of marriage.
Research from 2019 also suggests that harboring contempt is a predictor of an illness and poor well-being.
If contempt takes root long term, it may damage the relationship and you or your partner’s self-esteem.
Defensiveness occurs when you or your partner denies responsibility when communicating to or about the other.
This communication pattern often pops up if you feel attacked or criticized by your partner.
Gaslighting — which includes denial, manipulation, or misdirection — is a defense mechanism when someone doesn’t have or use sound communication skills.
What defensiveness sounds like
Partner: “Honey, did you fold the laundry like I asked?”
Defensive response: “You know I had a long day at work, and you have to nag me about the laundry? It’s actually your fault it didn’t get done because I don’t think it was my turn!”
Defensiveness involves shifting blame, and it’s easy to get caught up in this, especially if you’re feeling bombarded.
Stonewalling is the last horseman, and this occurs when one partner disengages from the conversation.
If you or your partner are stonewalling, it may look like:
- pretending to be busy
- lack of eye contact
- no communication
- engaging in other activities not related to the conversation
Stonewalling can sometimes signal the dissolution of a relationship because one partner becomes so shut down that they can’t come to any agreement, make repair attempts, or communicate effectively.
This level of disconnection may mean that one partner isn’t willing or able to keep putting in the effort required to maintain the relationship.
None of the horsemen are predictors of divorce on their own. Some are bound to pop in from time to time.
But if you find that you and your partner have any combination of the Four Horsemen as a fixture in your relationship, it may be time to seek help.
Whether you both want to stay married or go your separate ways, living with any of the four running around untamed can be taxing and contribute to a toxic relationship. You deserve wholeness and healing.
In Gottman’s 4 decades of research, he identified the following antidotes to each horseman:
- gentle startup (criticism)
- taking responsibility (defensiveness)
- cultivating appreciation (contempt)
- physiological self-soothing (stonewalling)
A 2019 study suggests that those same unhealthy styles of communication that lead to divorce also may become a roadblock to recoupling after a divorce.
You can learn more about the Four Horsemen and the Apocalypse and their antidotes in this video from the Gottman Institute.
Couples therapy can be helpful for many reasons, and if the Four Horsemen are present in your relationship, getting help can be pivotal. Finding a therapist trained in Gottman techniques may be particularly beneficial.
One 2021 study conducted with 72 Iranian couples found that those couples that had gone through online Gottman interventions had increased constructive communication with one another.
Benefits of couples therapy may include learning healthy ways of navigating conflict, communicating more effectively, and improving relationship satisfaction.
Negative communication patterns may present themselves as Gottman’s evidence-based Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse predictors of divorce or separation in your relationship.
Understanding criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling — and their antidotes — is vital to creating relationship satisfaction.
If you find yourself presented with these issues, seeking help is essential. It’s never too late to learn better ways of communicating with and relating to one another.