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The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse: 4 Relationship Habits That Predict Divorce

Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist By Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, is a Philadelphia-based marriage and family therapist, certified Gottman therapist, and director and therapist at A Better Life Therapy. She received her master's in couples and and family therapy from Thomas Jefferson University.
Research Shows These 4 Habits Predict The End Of A Relationship

Research into relationships has helped us predict which couples are more likely to build long-term, satisfying relationships and which couples will build relationships that are conflictual, unhappy, and lead toward divorce. The research has found that it is not differences in background, age, or even opinions that make or break a relationship. Rather, it's behaviors, particularly regarding how people communicate, that influence the health of a relationship the most. Among the most important findings is a set of communication habits dubbed "The Four Horsemen."

What are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

The Four Horsemen are four communication habits that increase the likelihood of divorce, according to research by psychologist and renowned marriage researcher John Gottman, Ph.D. Those four behaviors are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt.  

Gottman named these four communication habits as a play on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Christian Bible's New Testament. Those four horsemen—conquest, war, hunger, and death—signaled the end of times. Similarly, when there is a chronic use of Gottman's Four Horsemen, research has shown the relationship is likely to become unstable and unhappy and, in likelihood, will end.

Since the 1970s, Gottman has studied thousands of couples in what is called the Love Lab, where he and his team watched couples interact and tracked their relational satisfaction. Through this research, they were able to distill the relational habits that make some couples "masters'' and other couples "disasters" in relationships. Gottman found that when couples utilize criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and/or contempt during their difficult moments, they trigger what's known as the "distance and isolation cascade." This means that as a couple utilizes any of these four habits without successful "repair" over time, they will turn toward each other less and less to meet their connection needs.

Of course, most people will use these habits from time to time in their relationships. None of us are immune. The key is that we recognize their use, quickly make repairs, and work toward utilizing them less and less.

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1. Criticism

The first of the four horsemen is criticism. Criticism is the act of noticing a problem within your life or the relationship and turning it into a commentary of your partner's character trait flaws. You can catch yourself using criticism when you say the words "always" or "never" when describing something your partner does or doesn't do. Criticism is different from complaint. Issuing complaints is a normal and healthy aspect of a relationship—if no one ever complains, then there will be a lot of unprocessed resentment over time. A complaint, however, focuses on the actual issue.

For example, if you walk into a messy house after a long day at work and see a sink full of dishes, you might notice yourself feeling frustrated. When you go to express this, you might either use "criticism" or "complaint.”

  • Complaint: "I am so tired at the end of the day, and it is so frustrating for me to walk into a sink full of dishes."
  • Criticism: "I am so tired, and you never care about that. You always leave the dishes in the sink."

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You can see that the complaint focuses on the problem—the messy dishes—while the criticism makes the partner the problem. This is likely to start a frustrating loop in which your partner will respond with defensiveness.

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The antidote: 

The use of criticism in a relationship is usually due to having unmet needs. Sadly, when you wrap those unmet needs in criticism, you are even less likely to get them met by your partner. We can actually predict how a conversation is going to go in the first three minutes. If the conversation starts off harshly, it is likely to move toward difficult conflict, whereas when we bring up the same topic softly, there is a higher likelihood of resolution.

Instead of criticism, try to utilize the antidote of criticism: a gentle startup. A gentle startup sounds like:

  • Expressing what you noticed
  • Sharing your feelings
  • Stating your need

If we used the complaint listed above, it would sound like:

"When I come home at the end of the day and see the dishes in the sink (what you noticed), I feel so tired and frustrated (sharing your feelings). I really need to walk into a peaceful environment. (what you need)."

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2. Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a reaction to perceived criticism. Sometimes the criticism is actually there, and sometimes it's simply a projection. When people get defensive, they might: 

  • Overexplain: "Well, I would have cleaned the dishes, but when I went to clean them, there was no dish detergent, and then I went to the store and…"
  • Take on a victim mentality: "You are always so mean to me!"
  • Counter-criticize: "I will start doing the dishes when you start taking care of the lawn better. You are always ignoring that."
  • Use "but": "I know the dishes are a mess, but can't you just ignore it for tonight?"

There might be a good explanation. Maybe the person is being mean to you. Maybe you are right, and they never clean up their dishes. Perhaps it's true that if they just chilled out, they would be happier.

And, if you become defensive, the other person will believe that their need has not been heard. And this is going to amp up the disconnect and likely even amp up the criticism. There is a time and a place to talk about your own perception, but it's not usually in the immediate moment when someone makes an ask—in fact, your position is less likely to be heard if you respond with it immediately in this way.

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The antidote:

Instead of getting defensive, try taking responsibility for your part, even if you believe you only own an iota of the issue. You can also try to validate their own perception and reality. The likelihood is that their perception is valid and that there is some piece of it you hold responsibility for. It can be hard to admit, but it's really important for healthy relational functioning.

This might sound like saying:

"You're right the dishes are a mess (validation). I didn't do them even though I said I would."

3. Stonewalling

The next of the four horsemen is stonewalling. Stonewalling is exactly as it sounds: when someone in the conversation starts to act like a stone wall. As the person experiencing the stonewalling, it might seem like their partner doesn't care about them. They will notice that their partner looks away, remains silent through most of the conversation, and perhaps even crosses their arms across their chest.

For the person stonewalling, it's likely they are in a state of physiological flooding. Physiological flooding happens when the body detects a threat. In conflict, sometimes our bodies will detect it as any other threat. This means that our body will release stress hormones, and we will experience a racing heart. The parts of our brain responsible for relational behaviors goes offline. This means we dip into our survival instincts—freezing, fleeing, or fighting—and we lose our relational instincts, like problem-solving, humor, and affection.

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The antidote:

When someone is physiologically flooded, it is not possible to have a productive conversation. That is why it's important for both people in the conversation to agree to take a break when they notice that flooding is present. The person that is stonewalling needs to work toward self-soothing. It takes about 20 minutes for the stress hormones to dump out of the bloodstream.

During the break, the flooded party can:

  • Practice deep breathing
  • Go on a walk
  • Do a soothing activity, such as reading, painting, etc.
  • Exercise

In order to self-soothe, you need space from the conflict, so try not to continue to think about it, write about it, or call your best friend to talk about it.

Then, it is really important that the person who took the break comes back to the conversation when calm. This return builds trust within the relationship.

4. Contempt

Contempt is the most dangerous of all of the four horsemen. At minimum, it is very mean, and at worst, it becomes emotional abuse. According to Gottman's research, contempt has shown to be the biggest indicator of divorce. It also has been connected to health issues for the partner the contempt is directed toward, including a lower immune system.

Contempt is criticism supercharged because it takes a one-up position of superiority. When people have contempt, they are expressing their discontent by utilizing shame and mean-spirited sarcasm to put someone down. You can notice contempt on someone's face when they move one side of their face up—think of it as a "half disgust" face.

  • Complaint: "I am so tired at the end of the day, and it is so frustrating for me to walk into a sink full of dishes."
  • Criticism: "I am so tired, and you never care about that. You always leave the dishes in the sink." 
  • Contempt: "Oh of course, I walk into a filthy house after a long day. What else would I expect from someone like you? I should have known when I met your family how lazy you'd be."

The antidote:

Contempt is developed through modeling or long-standing resentment. Some people learn to be contemptuous because they saw their caregivers utilize contempt in conflict. Because of this, it's their go-to when they are upset. For others, contempt has developed within the relationship in response to long-standing resentment or betrayal.

Rather than utilizing contempt, you'll need to work on building new communication skills to discuss your upset feelings. Specifically, you'll need to learn to talk about yourself rather than the other person when in conflict. The ultimate goal is to be able to use gentle startup (discussed with criticism above), but at first you might just focus on being able to narrate your inner world instead of attacking the other person.

That might sound like:

"Right now, I can feel myself being so angry. I want to say so many angry things to you, but I know it won't go well. I really need us to figure out how to fix this."

Another important antidote and protective factor for contempt is building a culture of appreciation. This means being sure to notice what your partner is doing right and expressing that to them when you see it as often as you can.

Repairing after conflict.

Everyone is bound to use one or more of the four horsemen at some point in their relationships. As you get better at identifying them, you'll be able to repair them in the moment so that your conversations can move forward. Some examples of repair are:

  • If you notice your partner utilizing one of the horsemen, let them know gently and ask them to try again.
  • If you catch yourself using the horsemen, apologize and try again.

When you notice that things are not going well, offer a relational behavior—affection, humor, apology, curiosity, or problem-solving. Here are some examples of what these might sound like: 

  • Humor: "Can I give you a hug?" or making a funny joke about yourself.
  • Apology: "I am really sorry—this isn't going well. Let me try again." 
  • Curiosity: "Hey, can you try to explain that again? I want to understand."
  • Problem-solving: "Do you think this conversation would go better if I put the kids to bed first?"

When we learn to recognize the four horsemen and replace them with new skills, our conflict conversations can change.

Here is an example of what happens when we don't change our four horsemen habits:

  • Person 1 makes a complaint: "I am so tired at the end of the day, and it is so frustrating for me to walk into a sink full of dishes."
  • Person 2 responds with defensiveness to perceived criticism: "Why is that my fault? You are always blaming me for everything!"
  • Person 1 defaults to criticism: "I did not say it's your fault! But you never listen, and you always just make it about you!"
  • Person 2 begins to stonewall: "I don't even want to talk about this anymore." (looks away)
  • Person 1 falls to contempt: "I don't want to talk to you anymore (in a mocking voice). Of course you don't. Your parents never taught you how to talk about anything. It's pathetic."

Now, here is an example of what can change if we use our antidotes:

  • Person 1 makes a complaint: "I am so tired at the end of the day, and it is so frustrating for me to walk into a sink full of dishes."
  • Person 2 responds with defensiveness to perceived criticism: "Why is that my fault? You are always blaming me for everything!"
  • Person 1 makes a repair: "Hey babe, did you think I was criticizing you? I wasn't. I was just complaining."
  • Person 2 also makes a repair: "Oh, sorry. OK, what's up?"
  • Person 1 tries a gentle startup: "I have noticed when I get home lately, the dishes are in the sink, and I feel so frustrated when I see that. I need us to come up with a solution."
  • Person 2 takes responsibility: "You're right. I have really been slacking on that. I need to come up with some ideas for keeping up with it because I agreed that would be my thing."
  • Person 1: "I really appreciate that. And if it's too much, let's just talk about what to do instead."

Much better.

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