Four Horsemen of the ApocalypseWhat are the dreaded “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and how can they destroy your marriage if you don’t act quickly?

John Gottman, Ph.D., is a well respected psychologist, marriage researcher and author of many books including, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last

He says that an unhappy marriage can increase your chances of becoming ill by 35% and take four years off your life.  He also believes that “working on your marriage every day will do more for your health and longevity than working out at a health club”.

Through his research of married couples he can predict the end of a marriage relationship with a stunning 93 percent accuracy!

Although many of us believe that anger is the root cause of unhappiness in relationships, Gottman notes that it is not conflict itself that is the problem, but how we handle it.

Venting anger constructively can actually do wonders to clear the air and get a relationship back in balance. However, conflict does become a problem when it is characterized by the presence of what Gottman calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”:  Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.  (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are referenced in the Bible as well and are seen as symbolizing Conquest, War, Famine, and Death.)

If you want to know how to instill love and respect back into your marriage, start by eliminating the four horsemen.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The first of the horsemen is Criticism.  It’s important to understand the difference between criticizing and complaining, because criticism can soon lead to contempt. 

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Criticism involves attacking your partner’s personality or character, rather than focusing on the specific behavior that bothers you. Complaints are objective statements of unmet needs.

Gottman feels that it is healthy to air disagreements, but not to attack your spouse’s personality or character in the process. This is the difference between saying, “I’m upset that you didn’t do the laundry” and saying, “I can’t believe you didn’t do the laundry. You’re so lazy.” In general, women are more likely to utilize this horseman.

The second horseman is Contempt. Contempt is intentionally abusing your spouse verbally, emotionally, and/or psychologically.  Contempt is an open sign of disrespect. Contempt is probably the most dangerous of the four horsemen, as it can wither affection and destroy hope.

Contempt expresses the complete absence of any admiration or respect and is delivered with insults, name-calling, hostile humor, mockery, sneering, eye-rolling and other negative body language.

Contempt is toxic and its presence is an indication of a disintegrating marriage. It must be eliminated.

If criticism and contempt are a regular part of your relationship then you may want to consider counseling to help you to eliminate it.  Both of these horsemen can be tough to get rid of though because they tend to be born out of negative childhood experiences such as parental criticism, shaming or belittling.

The third horseman is Defensiveness. Defensiveness is a natural reaction to being criticized or treated condescendingly. It’s also a way of denying responsibility and does not help the relationship.

If you fail to address complaints and don’t contribute any solutions of your own, those complaints are likely to become criticisms you naturally want to defend against.  It’s a vicious cycle.

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When a person is defensive, he or she often experiences a great deal of tension and has difficulty tuning into what is being said. Making excuses or meeting one complaint with another are two additional examples of defensiveness.

The fourth horseman is Stonewalling. People who stonewall simply refuse to respond. It may because you’re unaware of your own feelings or you are afraid of conflict. Rather than dealing directly with the issues at hand, you pull yourself out of the marriage without solving your problems. Basically you’re tuning things out.

Occasional stonewalling can be healthy, but as a typical way of interacting, stonewalling during conflict can be destructive to the marriage. This is also a behavior that men tend to engage in much more often than women do.

All couples will engage in these types of behaviors at some point in their marriage, but when the four horsemen become a permanent fixture then the relationship has a high likelihood of failing.

However, Gottman has also made it clear that with work and an investment in overcoming these challenges, marriages can improve and become successful.

It’s how conflict is handled that makes all the difference. 

Take an inventory of where you both are in your marriage and then use the resources that are at your disposal – books, counselors, mentors, blogs, support groups, etc. and work to become better.

So…Are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse present in your marriage or relationship?  If so, in the comment section below, tell us how they have affected your relationship and what you’re doing to eliminate them.


    15 replies to "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Will Destroy Your Marriage"

    • Karen

      All four “horsemen” have been present in my marriage for over 30 years. I have put up with stonewalling and criticism since I found out and confronted my H about his second Ea with the same coworker 8 months ago. His first ea with her was 18 years ago and i forgave and forgot that one. Not this time, though. he has employed stonewalling, half truths and become verbally abusive and physically intimidating in his criticism of me ” neglecting” him. he has been critical and full of contempt for me for longer than that which has made ME defensive at the slightest provocation of criticism or ” setting of his jaw”, an action that tells me a blow up is coming. Don’t know how I have stood for it for 35 years! Guess because i stood by my vows which said for better or for worse. Too bad the “worse” has been the majority of our marriage, which I am now, at almost age 58, seeing for what it is and am taking steps to get out of. He hasn’t wanted to work on our marriage for years, but especially the past 8 months when I’ve been through hell trying to deal with his affair. He won’t talk about it, just wants it to all go away, wants me to ” get over it”, and lets just “move forward” in our marriage and pretend nothing happened. Not this time. The first EA was a mistake, the second was a conscious choice. A marriage counselor we went to gave our marriage a 2% chance of making it after only 30 minutes of listening to us. I asked him to go back, but told him that since he was the cause, he needed to make the appointment. He never did. And while we are both in individual therapy, his anger management therapy is not working as he still screams in my face, calls me names like “whore” and “stupid bitch”, and has become physical in that he’s shoved me down, grabbed the cross chain on my neck and twisted it tightly as if to choke me, pulled his fist back as if to hit me, but he never does… You get the picture. Many other acts like that along with the verbal abuse. I can’t forgive his abuse or his lack of remorse and apology regarding his affair and the fact that my feelings are not validated or respected. i have tried to discuss his criticism and contempt for years and he never listened. The 4 horsemen have now arrived. I am working to get out of here safely with what little self respect I still possess. 35 years of marriage is a lot to cast aside, but I can no longer endure all that he has inflicted. I’m done.

      • Doug


        If you have truly decided that enough is enough, then you need to talk to your attorney, get your ducks in a row (separate bank account, restraining orders, whatever) and make the leap. You deserve love, happiness – and safety.

      • Annie

        Please please be safe…..YOU are special, unique and have so much to offer…..This man and I use the term loosely has no value for you.I know it’s hard to validate yourself at this time.
        Things will get better, they can not get any worse.Get off that cross he has pinned you to and you carry with you every day..”I am worthy ” and ” I DESERVE to be happy”. write it on your bathroom mirror, read it , say it……
        take care.


    • Redemption

      Karen: My heart goes out to you. I don’t know how you have survived as well as you appear to have. Protect yourself but get out of there as fast as you can . The next time that coward of a man might make his fist connect with your flesh, or worse. Move fast!

    • Cookiemomster

      I struggle with the “four horsemen” in my marriage of nearly 37 years also. They were means of relating, I think, my husband learned in his own family and I’m afraid he’s taught them to me also. My daughters have often asked me why I let their father treat me the way he does and I think that I’ve only recently (since the EA) become aware of it. I’ve let him do it so much that I’ve responded in kind and it’s become the normal dynamic of our home. I need to work hard to break the ice on these bad habits!!

    • Patsy50

      Your story leaves me with a heavy heart. You took a vow. ” for better or worse” but that does not mean abuse.
      I am glad you are taking that step to get out of your marriage. That’s not what a marriage consists of. Just as Doug has stated, you deserve love, happiness and above all to feel safe.
      Take care of yourself.

    • Karen

      Cookiemomster, I think we must be living the same life! I too believe that my husband learned his ways from his childhood. He grew up in a rural German-American family whose values included keeping women in their place and the men as the ones who had “the say”. Women were not really respected. When he loses his temper, which is often, I automatically go into survival mode and lash back in an effort to defend myself. I rarely, if ever, start a fight, but when I see his jaw tighten and clench, I know we are in for it. Our grown sons have also asked why I stay and I can’t say why. I have most everything ready with my lawyer and basically all it will take is a phone call to say “file for divorce” but I can’t seem to pick up the phone to do it, even after all the abuse and his second EA with that woman. i think something must be wrong with me! I Have kept journals since 1992 about all that has gone on and writing about it helps get it out, but now I am thinking about how much I want and NEED peace and happiness instead of walking on eggshells for the remainder of my life. I just need the courage to just call and file. I know and feel in my heart that he does not love me. How can he love me and continue to treat me the way that he does? I allowed it for decades and now have tried to set boundaries, although he usually ignores them and we are off in a fight again. The four horsemen LIVE at our house. Sadly.

    • Rachel


      I had a hard time telling my attorney to file as well.
      When I finally did 3 days later a new me was born. I felt strong and able to breathe better.
      You will know when the time is right.
      Good luck!

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