The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Let’s be honest…who doesn’t secretly love a good post-apocalyptic movie?  Isn’t there a sort of perverse curiosity about what would happen if society as we know it completely imploded on itself? 

This fascination with the apocalypse has been brewing since the book of Revelation was scribed shortly after the death of Jesus Christ.  John the Revelator suggests that the end of the world will be heralded in by four “Horsemen”: Death, Famine, War, and Conquest.  Yikes.

The Four Horsemen of the Marriage Apocalypse

You might be wonder what on Earth this has to do with Valentine’s Day, or Happiness in general.  Well, Dr. John Gottman, therapist and marriage counselor, extraordinaire, borrowed the term, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to describe four practices that are guaranteed to destroy any marriage.  They are: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling

For anyone who is married, or who would like to have a successful marriage someday, keep reading below.  Once understood, we can learn how to erase these four practices from our relationships and nurture healthy and happy marriages. 

Also, at the bottom of this post, is a link to a really cool app from The Gottman Institute for you and your partner to download!

What are the Four Horsemen?

1. Criticism

Criticism is the most common problem in marriage.  Ironically, we criticize others every day, and yet, are very poor at accepting it ourselves.  Why?  Because it’s usually not very “constructive”, but very, very destructive.   

The problem with criticism is that it’s easy…an off-the-cuff comment that we don’t think about before we say it. Then, these critical comments multiply like rabbits.  It becomes a tit-for-tat game of one-upping the other.  And most devastating, it becomes routine.   

Criticism does have a more productive cousin, “complaint”, which can be effective in resolving problems, if it addresses a specific incident.

But when the complaint becomes a generalized attack on your spouse’s character—“You only ever want to do what you want to do.  Do you think maybe we could do something I want for a change?”—it loses any possibly benefit.  You’ve just verbalized that you don’t like your partner, and at least for that moment, that is all they will hear.  They’re not going to remember last week’s compliment about always being punctual when you’ve just told them they’re selfish. 

Withholding complaints to “keep the peace” or avoid conflict, doesn’t help either.  It encourages us to “search for underlying patterns in [our] partner’s mistakes” (Ellie Lisitsa, The Gottman Institute), which then erupt unexpectedly as criticisms.

The problem here is we start searching for evidence to fit the crime.  We’ve declared our partner guilty, and we’re going to create a space in our mind to watch for and catalog every misdeed that might justify our predetermined judgment. 

The Four Marriage Horsemen: Uchtdorf Judge

Antidote for Criticism

Complaints should serve a purpose.  Some of the best marriage advice I ever read was called “The Next-day rule”.  Simply stated, if something your spouse did to upset you won’t cause you to still be upset “the next day”, let it go.  We’re all human, we all make mistakes.  We don’t need to complain about every misstep or stupid comment our partner makes. 

But, if it’s a recurring problem, and you’re continually being hurt, then take these steps to address it:

  1. Replace “you” statements with “I” statements.  “You” statements infer they are a problem, instead of that there is a problem.  

Instead of: “You never help me with the dishes”, try “I would really like some help with the dishes. Would you mind?”   

  • Avoid any blame.  Always assume the best of your spouse.  Surely he doesn’t mean to put the milk bottle back in the fridge with 2 milliliters of milk left in it.  She can’t always leave the car on empty, can she? 

That we are giving our spouse the benefit of the doubt doesn’t need to be stated out loud.  This is a shift that we need to make in our mind and in our heart.  Our words are a by-product of our internal dialogue.  If we’re keeping a running checklist of our partner’s faults, they’re bound to tumble out of our mouths at some point. 

Criticism starts in the mind.  It needs to stop there as well.

2. Contempt

“Contempt is the most poisonous of all relationship killers.”

Dr. John Gottman

Dr. Gottman’s prolific research shows that nothing destroys a marriage as effectively as contempt.

It’s hard to imagine a marriage having to deal with contempt—something we would typically associate with someone for whom we have no respect, no love, no appreciation whatsoever.  Yet, contempt will creep into our most intimate relationships on the coattails of other vices, like Criticism. 

Contempt doesn’t appear suddenly, either.  It starts as eye-rolling, name-calling, murmuring, any and all forms of disgust that implies I am better than you.  It shows itself when we say, “it was only a joke” as your husband storms off in a huff, or “you can’t recognize sarcasm when you hear it?” as your wife crumbles into a teary mess.       

Like Criticism, Contempt also starts in the heart and the mind.  Expressions of contempt are a result of repeated and continuous negative thoughts about your spouse.  It’s not enough to stop the negative thought when it occurs, it needs to be contradicted and replaced. 

Antidote for Contempt

Replacing negative thoughts we might have about our loved ones is one of the two antidotes for clearing Contempt from our relationships. 

Consistently performing small acts of kindness for your spouse, and consciously thinking positive thoughts about him or her will help establish a “culture of fondness and admiration”. 

If we take the time every day to cultivate appreciation for our spouse, small flaws or incidents become trivialized and more easily overlooked. 

The second antidote is the same as an antidote for Criticism: replace “you” statements with “I” statements (see above). 

Interesting Note:

Dr. Gottman’s team stumbled upon an interesting by-product from contemptuous marriages.  They discovered that “couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.). Contempt destroys psychological, emotional, and physical health.”  (Ellie Lisitsa, The Gottman Institute)

Is your physical and emotional health another reason to eradicate contempt from your marriage?  Most definitely. 

3. Defensiveness

At this point in our lives, we’re pretty familiar with what Defensiveness is, but do we really understand why we are being defensive with our loved ones?  Gottman says it is usually a response to criticism to get the aggressor to “back off”

Defensiveness is a direct response to criticism, and continuous criticism creates an environment where we always feel threatened, we are only listening to respond, and we are running a mental balance sheet of “wrongs”–all signs of defensiveness. 

We choose to be defensive because we see it as a way to reverse the blame back on our partner by insinuating that the real problem isn’t me, it’s you:

Question: “Did you remember you were going to make dinner tonight?”

Defensive Answer: “How could I possibly remember?  You knew what a busy day I had today, you should have reminded me.” 

When we’re defensive, we immediately dismiss our partner’s concerns, legitimate or not, because we are reacting to their words without listening to what they’re really saying.

In the example above, the person asking the question just wants to know that their partner supports them.  The responder, on the other hand, just wants to be let off the hook scot-free

Antidote for Defensiveness

The key to resolving defensiveness is to listen to understand and accept responsibility.  When we are really listening to our partners, we can understand what it is they really need or want from us.  Then, we can understand that they are not criticizing us and our natural defensiveness diminishes. 

At that point, when our tempers are cool, we can employ the second part of the antidote, which is to accept responsibility

My husband is really good at this.  Whenever a problem arises—whether it’s with me or the kids—he immediately responds with, “It’s totally my fault…”. Whether it is his fault or not, this simple phrase is disarming and helps create an environment of harmony and understanding, and the problem is resolved with considerably less tension. 

What does it hurt to accept responsibility for something that really isn’t your fault in order to provide a more peaceful, happy environment for your families?

Four Marriage Horsemen: peaceful home


Stonewalling is basically exactly what it sounds like!  In the middle of an argument, one person will suddenly refuse to respond by throwing up a “wall” between himself and his partner.  Stonewalling looks like tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors” (Dr. John Gottman).

Stonewalling becomes a habit that can be very hard to break.  It begins as a coping mechanism for feeling emotionally overwhelmed but becomes a habit for refusing to face and resolve outstanding issues in our marriages. 

It very effectively (and destructively) communicates such things as:

  • “you’re not worth my time”,
  • “your opinions don’t matter to me”,
  • “nothing will ever change, so why talk about it?”

Antidote for Stonewalling

Stonewalling is somewhat akin to the fight or flight response.  We recognize that fighting back is fruitless, so instead we simply “flee”. 

The best way to deal with stonewalling is to create parameters ahead of time for both you and your spouse to follow.  Empower each other to call a “time out” when needed, but establish ahead of time, when that “time out” expires.  This way, whoever is feeling overwhelmed can have some time to soothe themselves; the other partner knows they’re not being ignored, that they can address the issue in a short period of time; and both can allow heated emotions to cool and come back together (hopefully) more rationally and level-headed. 

Do not, of course, go off and stew for half an hour about how perfectly right you are about everything and how stupid your partner is!  Use the time to calm yourself down in a reliable way.  When you and your spouse come back together at the designated time, try your best not to be hostile.  Don’t just dive right back in where you left off! 

What’s Next for Your Marriage?

If any of this sounded familiar to you, I assure you, you’re not alone. In reality, I think we could all benefit from fine-tuning (or abolishing!) some of these behaviors.

If you and your spouse find that any of these malignant habits are infecting your marriage, the best way to move forward, is together.

Over at The Gottman Institute, they’ve put together a really cool app you and your spouse can download to your smart phone, called “Gottman Card Decks”. These cards are great conversation starters for everything from goal setting, to listening tactics, to some slightly steamier stuff!

Download yours here:

Great Summary

Phew! I’ll admit, that was a lot of information! But, hopefully good information! For a great summary of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, check out this video by the Gottman Institute.

More information can also be found at:

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