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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Gottman’s research revealed that they could predict the fate of marriages simply by looking at marital conversation, and that this was largely due to the amount of negativity in the conversation.  But Gottman thought, are all negatives equally negative?  Are all negatives equally corrosive?  His answer of course, was no, they are not – some weigh more than others.  The behaviors that he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” are the most corrosive.  Usually, but not always, one leads to another.


A criticism is a global statement about something that is fundamentally wrong with one’s partner.  The importance of this first horseman, or corrosive behavior, is that it is aimed to personally attack the other person.  It is also important to note that a criticism differs greatly from a complaint.  A complaint states what one’s partner does that annoys, frustrates, or hurts them, while a criticism states how one’s partner is and is a blow to his or her personality instead of just their actions.  In other words, a complaint does not predict any negative in marital outcomes.  For example, a wife may be upset with her husband because he leaves his clothes laying around on the floor in their bedroom.  In a situation where she voices a complaint she would say, “It frustrates me when you leave your clothes on the ground.  And I am annoyed because I have asked you to pick them up several times.”  If she were to criticize her husband, she might say, “I am so fed up with you leaving your clothes all over the bedroom.  I cannot believe you never clean up after yourself, even after I ask you to.  You are such a slob.”

Dangerous statements that begin with “you always” or “you never” are also criticisms, not complaints.  To make complaints into dangerous criticisms, blame can be added, “How can you treat me this way?” or “Don’t you care about my feelings?”  It will also become a criticism if it becomes very personal: “What is wrong with you?”

According to Gottman, behavior therapists thought that the corrosive part about a criticism was that it was global and not specific in nature, and taught people how to voice their criticisms in more specific terms aimed at the negative behaviors they were actually addressing.  Unfortunately, this does not work very well.  Complaints turn in to criticisms for all sorts of reasons, due to different motives.  Usually, these motives are positive, such as not wanting to make too big of a deal out of something, or not wanting to seem so negative and complain all the time, or perhaps not even feeling entitled to one’s complaints.  Whatever the reason, the effect is the small, unaddressed complaints along the way being turned into a bigger criticism later.

Another example:

Complaint: “I’m upset that you talked about yourself all through dinner and you didn’t ask me about my day.  That hurts my feelings.”

Criticism: “You talked about yourself all through dinner and didn’t ask me anything about my day.  How can you treat me this way?  What kind of self-centered person are you?”


Gottman defines defensiveness as “any attempt to defend oneself from a perceived attack” (Gottman, 1999, p. 44).  Criticism quite often naturally elicits defensiveness.  Usually this looks like a complaint followed by a counter-complaint, such as this example:

W: And you get so aggressive after a few drinks, that’s the part I don’t like, that’s the part I fear”
H: How about when you explode into a tantrum?

Defensiveness can also look like what is deemed “retroactive deserving” by Greenburg and O’Malley (1983).  In this case, “you never admit that you are wrong, and you blame your partner for not somehow preventing the mistake you made, which was, therefore, your partner’s fault” (Gottman, 1999, p. 45). 

Defensiveness can also take on the common form of the “innocent victim posture,” where one says, or whines, “What are you picking on me for?  I didn’t do anything wrong.”  It is the “poor me, I’m innocent” story.

Defensiveness is corrosive because it usually includes denying responsibility for the problem.  Still worse, it also blames the other person for that problem instead, which just aggravates marital conflict.

Defensiveness is also dangerous because it is “symmetrical” (Gottman, 1994, p. 415).  Simply put, one person’s defensiveness leads to another’s.  A pattern of continuing criticism, contempt, and defensiveness often lead to withdrawal.


Gottman defines contempt as “any statement or nonverbal behavior that puts oneself on a higher plane than one’s partner” (Gottman, 1999, p. 45).  

Contempt can be thought of as a step beyond criticism.  This horseman includes behaviors that show genuine lack of caring, and the statements are not just critical, but are aimed at hurting the other person.

One type of contempt is mockery, where it almost seems like one person is making an attempt at humor or to tease, but that person is the only one laughing.  This type of contempt can be very powerful, especially when it is used in public.

There are also contemptuous facial expressions, including eye-rolling and an upward glance.  These expressions are especially corrosive.  Gottman found that a certain number of facial expressions by husbands was predictive of their wives’ infectious illness over the next four years.  This finding did not work the other way around, however, unless loneliness was added in.  In other words, lonely husbands whose wives were contemptuous became physically ill more often than other husbands.  These findings together suggest that contempt is so damaging that it goes beyond just psychological or emotional trauma, and can affect a spouse with physical illness.


This horseman occurs when one partner completely withdraws from the interaction, and usually involves that person leaving.  In normal social interactions, the listener typically gives the speaker nonverbal cues, such as head nodding, eyebrow raising and lowering, and giving eye contact, as well as verbal cues such as brief vocalizations and grunts like “yeah” and “uh-huh” (usually called “assests”).  When a person stonewalls, he or she does not do any of this.  They use brief monitoring glances, look away and down instead of at the speaker, vocalize hardly at all, and in effect “convey the presence of an impassive stone wall” (Gottman, 1999, p. 47).  

Men are consistently more likely to stonewall than women, and in Gottman’s study, 85% of the stonewallers were men.  Usually, men stonewall after their own physiology has become highly aroused, such as high heart rate or perspiration; in a sense, it is self-soothing, a way to disengage from the interaction to bring the physiological state back down perhaps.  Unfortunately, the reciprocal effect is that when men stonewall, women become increasingly upset, which increases their physiological arousal and pushes them to keep pursuing the issue.  In the end, if the man’s strategy of stonewalling is to reduce the intensity of the conflict, it only does the opposite.  When women stonewall, which is quite rare, it is dramatic and extremely negative for the marriage and very predictive of divorce, according to Gottman.  

While men often stonewall more than women, women often criticize more than men.  In Gottman’s studies it was found that for couples where the wife criticized more than the husband and the husband stonewalled more than the wife, the prediction of divorce was high.  The likelihood of the presence of both criticizing and stonewalling was also predicted by the total positive affect experienced by the husband and wife during the events of that day.  That is to say that negative behaviors probably have an origin in non-conflict interactions.

Important Things to Know With Regards to the Four Horsemen

~The Four Horsemen usually come in a sequence, starting with criticism

~The best single predictor of divorce is contempt

~It is NOT the case that in happy marriages the Four Horsemen do not occur – criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling show up between happy couples as well, they just occur less often and tend to be repaired effectively

~The amount of contempt found in happy marriages, however, is essentially zero.

Gottman recommends that “therapists label contempt as psychological abuse and unacceptable.”  He labels it “the sulfuric acid of love” (Gottman, 1999, p. 47).

Implications and Worries for Integrating the Four Horsemen in Therapy

                                                                                     (Image borrowed from Gottman Relationship Institute Website)

Because the other three horsemen are not always at zero in happy marriages suggests that intervention – therapy – can have profound effects.  Therapy here focuses on repair, because effective repair leads to positive affects such as affection, humor, interest, and lowered tension, all of which disappear when the interaction becomes negative.

The Four Horsemen may not be galloping wildly through a marriage, and the couple’s relationship may not be characterized by negativity, but the marriage may still have problems.  When asked the spouses might say that everything is alright and that they have adjusted.  In these cases, the absence of negativity can be confusing for therapists, and they can end up accepting the spouse’s account that everything is okay.  This can be a problem in effective and successful marital therapy because the couple may already be in advanced stages of Distance and Isolation Cascade, which looks like so:

Flooding Emotional Disengagement Parallel Lives Loneliness Divorce

~In the first stage, flooding, each person is not really hearing the other, and productive communication ends because they are not engaged listeners.  Physiological arousal contributes to flooding

~When communication conducive to moving forward breaks down, the spouses become emotionally disengaged.

~When the two people are disengaged and distanced from each other, emotional and physically (having separate mealtimes, going on separate vacations, different leisure time), they start to lead parallel lives.

~Once they are each living their own separate, parallel life to their partner, they begin to feel lonely and unloved. 

~Many leave the marriage by divorcing, others leave marriage by continuing to lead parallel lives.

These stages don’t necessarily happen in this specific linear pattern – loneliness can set in earlier or later. Either way, the path tends towards emotional distance, loneliness, and isolation

What is clear in these cases may not be the presence of negativity, but the absence of positive affect.  Gottman outlines complex patterns of characteristics in these couples on page 48 of his book, The Marriage Clinic:

        -There is an absence of affect; the marriage appears to be emotionally dead.  There is 

         no joy, affection, or humor, nor is there the engagement of anger and conflict, except 

         on rare occasions

        -Partners are like passing ships in the night, leading parallel lives.

        -They do not appear to experience each other as friends.

        -There is a lot of unacknowledged tension (facial, vocal, and somatic).

        -They keep saying everything is okay.  They appear to feel as if they should not really 

         complain, that there is something wrong with them for not being happier.

        -There may be a high level of physiological arousal in one or both people during the 

         conflict discussion.

        -There is little attempt on the part of either person to soothe the other.

Interventions in this case will facilitate partner reconnection to what they don’t like about their relationship.