Leanna Stockard, MA, AMFT

We may have all heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, death, famine, war, and conquest; however, have you heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for communication? According to Dr. John Gottman, the Four Horsemen are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. He labeled these communication styles as the Four Horsemen, because research was able to predict the end of a relationship when these styles were being used in communication. As a therapist, I see the Four Horsemen come into play frequently when we are communicating with others. Often, we do not realize the impact of the Four Horsemen, because we actually often use them within ourselves as well.

The first two Horsemen are criticism and contempt, and they are used as attacks against, or to hurt the other person. These may be intentional, or unintentional attacks.

Criticism: Critiquing your partner is attacking your partner. It is acceptable to bring up complaints about the relationship, as it is important for you to share if a specific action hurt you or offended you, but it is not acceptable to attack their character. Generally when we feel criticized by our partner, we may feel as though we are not good enough, and end up frustrated or resentful.

Contempt: According to Dr. Gottman, “Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce.” Holding your partner in contempt means to blame, to minimize their feelings, to disrespect them, etc. It attempts to put them in a one-down position, while you remain “superior.”

When we feel the attacks of [perceived] criticism or contempt, we use the second two Horsemen to protect ourselves from harm.

Defensiveness: When your partner presents a critique, it is normal to want to defend yourself in the moment. We want to provide an excuse as to why we did or did not do the critique that is being presented. We do not want it to be our fault, especially if it was an accident. This is understandable; however, it can definitely cause harm in the relationship, as defensiveness generally escalates conflict. It leaves our partner feeling unheard or invalidated in what they have presented to us.

Stonewalling: When a person is asserting their superiority to us, often times, we stonewall. Stonewalling is shutting down, either emotionally or physically, from the conversation. This generally happens when a person is feeling overwhelmed, and overtime it becomes challenging to get out of the desire to stonewall during conflicts.

How often do you see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse come into play in your relationship? If you do see any of the Horsemen in your relationship, do not fear. While they are a predictor of the end of a relationship, identifying the Four Horsemen in your relationship is the first step to overcoming them, and there are antidotes. Stay tuned for details.

If you recognize any of Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in your relationship, it may be helpful to connect with a therapist and effectively implement the antidotes. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to get connected with one of our talented clinicians.

Information regarding Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were obtained on his website.