Every relationship, regardless of how good it is, can experience conflict. While this may seem like a negative thing, the truth is that it is unavoidable and can actually provide positive opportunities for growth. The key is to learn how to manage conflict in a healthy way – if you can do this, then your relationship has a much better chance of succeeding.

One effective way to improve your communication with your partner is learning about the patterns within it. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are four negative communication patterns identified by Dr. John Gottman that can predict the end of a relationship. When these patterns are present in a relationship, they can lead to resentment, disengagement, and ultimately, the breakdown of the relationship. To effectively manage the conflict within your relationship, it begins with identifying the four horsemen and learning how to counteract them.

What Are the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse?

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor that is found in the New Testament to describe the end of times. It describes the horsemen to represent conquest, war, famine, and death. This metaphor has been used to draw parallels between communication styles that, when present, can predict the demise of a relationship. Gottman’s four horsemen refer to the four communication styles that can negatively impact relationships.

The first horseman is criticism, which involves attacking your partner’s character or personality instead of addressing a specific behavior or issue. The second is contempt, which is characterized by feelings of disgust, disrespect, and superiority toward your partner. The third is defensiveness, where one partner responds to criticism with deflection or counter-criticism. Finally, there is stonewalling, where one partner withdraws from the conversation and shuts down emotionally. These patterns can create an environment of negativity and hostility, and if left unchecked, can lead to the breakdown of a relationship. Knowing these signs can help you assess and address your own relationships before it’s too late.

Why Should These Be Addressed?

Addressing and overcoming the four horsemen is crucial for maintaining a healthy and happy relationship. These communication patterns can erode trust, respect, and intimacy between partners, and make it difficult to resolve conflicts or work through problems. By identifying and addressing the four horsemen, couples can learn to communicate more effectively, improve their conflict resolution skills, and build stronger, more resilient relationships. This requires both partners to be willing to acknowledge and take responsibility for their own contributions to the negative communication patterns, and to work together to develop healthier ways of relating to one another. With commitment and effort, couples can overcome the four horsemen and create a more positive, fulfilling relationship. Couples counselling is an effective way to address these issues and strengthen relationships.

The First Horseman: Criticism

Criticism is the first horseman of a relationship’s demise. Unlike voicing a complaint or offering constructive criticism, which are aimed at a specific problem, criticizing someone is an attack on their personality and being. This type of attack tears down your partner and leads to feelings of insecurity and worthlessness.

How is it harmful?

Criticism is often the precursor to much more sinister consequences. It can be detrimental for both parties involved, with the victim feeling attacked and rejected, and the perpetrator entering an intensifying cycle of criticism that eventually leads to contempt. This effect is magnified when criticism becomes pervasive, so it needs to be addressed to prevent further damage.


  • “You’re lazy and never help with the housework.”
  • “You never think about me when you make plans! I don’t believe that you are forgetful, you’re clearly just selfish and inconsiderate!”

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The Second Horseman: Contempt

Contempt is when a person speaks or behaves in a way that shows disrespect or disgust towards their partner. This can include name-calling, sarcasm, or mockery. These types of behavior make the recipient feel worthless and despised.


  • “You’re such an idiot, how did you not understand that question?”
  • “Could you be any more pathetic?”

How is it harmful?

Criticism focuses on the flaws of your partner, while contempt implies that you are superior to them in some way. For example, “You’re ‘tired’? Cry me a river,” is a statement of disdain and disbelief. It implies that the person being addressed should be ashamed for not having done more work around the house or for engaging in activities like playing video games. Ultimately, it conveys a sense of moral superiority, which can be very damaging in any relationship.

Studies have even uncovered a link between contemptuous relationships and weakened immune systems; people in contemptuous relationships are more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses such as colds and the flu. This is because contempt is often fuelled by built-up negative thoughts and emotions which can boil over when one partner attacks the other from a position of superiority. **AND according to Gottman, it is the single greatest predictor of divorce!


The Third Horseman: Defensiveness

The third horseman of a failing relationship is defensiveness, this is when a person feels attacked or criticized and responds by defending themselves. This can escalate the conflict and make it difficult to resolve. Defensiveness most often arises in response to criticism.

We’ve all been guilty of this at some point or another, and unfortunately, it can be a regular occurrence when things aren’t going well. When we are feeling unfairly blamed, we look for justifications and act as if we have done nothing wrong, hoping that our partner will give us a pass. It is rare that an excuse actually works when it comes to resolving a conflict with a partner. All it does is show them that you are not taking their feelings or your mistakes seriously and that you don’t want to take responsibility.

How is it harmful?

When your spouse is criticizing you and you’re feeling attacked, it may be tempting to defend yourself. However, this sort of reaction will likely aggravate the situation as opposed to resolving it. That’s because defending your actions can come off as blaming your partner instead of seeking a resolution. So, if you want to address conflicts in a healthy manner, it’s important to rely less on being defensive and more on working together to engage in productive dialogue.


  • Question: “Did you take the dog out this morning as you promised?”
  • Defensive response: “I had no time this morning, do you know how much I have to do before walking out the door? Why didn’t you just do it?”

The Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your partner simply stops responding to you? That is known as stonewalling. It often follows responses of contempt. Stonewalling occurs when someone disengages from the conversation, avoiding any sort of confrontation or resolution. Instead, they may start tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or becoming fixated on another activity. Stonewalling can make it difficult for couples to address their issues and build healthier relationships.

How is it Harmful?

When a relationship has been negatively impacted by criticism, contempt, and defensiveness, it can reach a point where stonewalling becomes an escape. This is a bad habit that is difficult to break as it is usually caused by feeling overwhelmed and unable to respond in a rational manner. Over time, the effects of these negative horsemen can become so pervasive that stonewalling is seen as the only way out. Stonewalling also has the potential to leave the other person in the discussion feeling unheard or dismissed due to the lack of acknowledgment or response.


  • Silent treatment, checking out of the conversation, etc.

The Horseman and Their Antidotes

Conflict can cause serious issues down the road if it’s not managed properly, and the first step in doing this is to identify and counteract The Four Horsemen when they come up in your conversations. Luckily, just like Newton’s Third Law of Motion, for every ‘horseman’ there is an antidote! Here, you’ll learn how and when to use these antidotes in order to maintain healthy relationships.

Criticism’s Antidote: Gentle Startup

Complaining about a specific behaviour is healthy, but criticism directed toward someone’s character is not. If you want to express your dissatisfaction in a constructive way, avoid starting your complaint with “you.” Instead, focus on how the situation makes you feel and express what you need in a positive manner. Additionally, use “I” statements to provide clarity and context for your feedback. By avoiding blame, you can make sure that your complaint is received in the right way.


  • Criticism: “You are so selfish when you make plans without me.”
  • Gentle Startup: “I feel left out when you make plans without asking me what I would like to do. I need to feel more included and considered. Can we make these decisions more collaborative moving forward?”

The antidote response focuses on “I” statements (i.e., “I…”). It’s most effective when it begins with “I feel” and leads to “I need”, which is then followed by respectfully asking to fulfill that need. This type of discussion avoids blame or criticism, which means it can’t devolve into a heated argument. Instead, it encourages productive dialogue and active listening, so everyone is heard and respected. This open and respectful environment can help you reach better solutions faster and on more agreeable terms.

Contempt’s Antidote: Appreciation and Respect

Contempt can be damaging to relationships, but there are proactive steps you can take to counter its effects. To foster a culture of appreciation and respect in your relationship, make an effort to express gratitude for the little things, practice active listening, and find ways to show understanding and empathy.

Being mindful of the small things is key to a successful relationship. Expressing appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner on a regular basis will create a positive attitude in your relationship that will help shield you from any negative emotions. The more love and understanding you show each other, the less likely it will be for any feelings of contempt to arise. Gottman’s research uncovered the “5:1 magic ratio” for relationships to thrive; that is, for every one negative interaction, a relationship needs five or more positive interactions to remain healthy. If you consistently make these deposits into your emotional bank account, you’ll be able to keep your relationship in the green.


  • Contempt: “I can’t believe you wrote down the wrong address, you’re so stupid”
  • Respect & Appreciation: “It seems like you got the address wrong again, I am wondering if it might help to keep a note of it on your phone or establish another way to help you remember it?”

Defensiveness Antidote: Take Responsibility

Defensiveness can be damaging in relationships, as it is essentially a way of blaming your partner. It generally leads to unresolved issues and arguments that become more heated. The key to resolving the conflict and improving communication is to take responsibility for at least part of what happened, instead of placing the blame solely on your partner. This can help create an understanding between you and your partner, leading to a better resolution of the problem.


  • Defensive: “The dog peed on the rug because you didn’t take him out this morning! You never keep your promises of taking him out on time.”
  • Taking Responsibility: “I don’t think it’s fair that the dog doesn’t get taken outside on time in the morning, but it shouldn’t only be your responsibility. If you are having trouble staying on top of this task due to time, I can try to help if we coordinate appropriately.”

Stonewalling Antidote: Self-Soothing

When couples are overwhelmed with stress, fear, or emotion, they can shut down and stop communicating. This is known as stonewalling, and it can have detrimental effects on a relationship. When under intense emotional pressure, couples are also at risk of increased heart rate, the release of stress hormones into the bloodstream, and possibly a fight-or-flight response. Unfortunately, these negative reactions can further exacerbate the already tense situation.

When it comes to dealing with stonewalling, the first step is to practice physiological self-soothing. This involves stopping the conversation and taking a “timeout”. This allows each party to calm down and avoid making any rash decisions that can further complicate things. Self-soothing allows both parties to approach the situation from a less confrontational place, creating an opportunity for better understanding and resolution.

When it comes to taking timeouts, it’s essential that you take at least 20 minutes to allow your body to physiologically relax. During this time, try and avoid negative thoughts such as feeling mistreated or indignant. Instead, focus on calming activities that will help you stay level-headed and re-energize. Deep breathing or going for a walk to clear your head and gain perspective, listening to music, exercising, etc. are some examples of activities that may help you calm down. This will help you come back with a fresh outlook and the ability to better manage difficult situations.

To Summarize…

The four horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Criticism is when you attack your partner’s character instead of addressing their behavior. Contempt is the second Horseman and is the most toxic of all four. Contempt is when you speak to your partner with disrespect, mockery, or sarcasm. The third Horseman is defensiveness, which is when you respond defensively to your partner’s complaints or criticism. Stonewalling is the fourth Horseman and happens when you withdraw from the conversation or shut down completely.

The antidote to criticism is to express a complaint without blame, choosing words that are gentle and non-accusatory. The antidote to contempt is to cultivate a culture of appreciation and respect for each other, focusing on positive traits and actions instead of negative ones. The antidote to defensiveness is to take responsibility for one’s own part in a conflict instead of blaming the other person. The antidote to stonewalling is to take a break and calm down instead of shutting down and refusing to communicate.

Understanding and practicing the antidotes to Gottman’s four horsemen can help couples improve their communication and strengthen their relationship. By enacting a gentle start-up, expressing appreciation and respect, taking responsibility for your part in the conflict, and practicing self-soothing techniques, couples can work together to build a healthy and happy relationship.

If you or someone you know is looking to begin online therapy and you reside in Ontario, Canada, please do not hesitate to contact us at admin@evergreentherapeutics.ca. We offer a team of psychotherapists who treat a variety of mental health concerns with individuals, couples, and families. Visit our website www.evergreentherapeutics.ca for more information.