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November 28, 2016
by Hilda Huj

The Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse

November 28, 2016 04:49 by Hilda Huj  [About the Author]

It is easy to fall in love. Staying in love, when we are facing difficulties, is the tough part. However, various difficulties are common and unavoidable part of every relationship.

The difficulties come in all shapes and sizes. However, they do not determine our relationships. Rather, the relationships are determined by the way we manage and overcome those difficulties   in order to do that, we have to communicate.

In my last article, I was talking about the significance of communication. This time I will focus on four different communication styles that can destroy our relationships (Gottman, 1944; Gottman, 1999). I invite you to read carefully these descriptions of communication styles and consider whether you and/or your partner ever engage in any of these behaviors.

Also, the significance of couple’s therapy will be discussed from this perspective. Couples therapy presents an effective tool that can make us aware of our communication styles and help save our relationship.

First Horseman - Criticism

Criticism is traditionally defined as an expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes. In criticism, the complaints are framed as if there is something defective with the other person. It puts that person down, given that it is over generalized and it attacks that person’s personality or character. It is important to note that criticism differs from critique or voicing a complaint! 

Criticism: What is wrong with you? How many times do I have to ask you to wash the dishes! Are you that lazy that you won't even help me?
Complaint: I asked you to wash the dishes, but you didn't do it. Could you help me out and wash the dishes?

When we complain, it is like we are kicking the problem around together with our partner. We are able to work on the problem together, even if we disagree. We are tossing it back and forth. It is like a game of volleyball. When we criticize, we are kicking our partner around because we are saying that our partner is the problem. What our partner did or did not do is just an evidence of why he or she is the problem.

From time to time we all criticize our partners and they sometimes criticize us. This does not mean that our relationship is doomed to fail. We start facing difficulties when criticism starts to be more pervasive. This makes us feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and then the way is paved for the others, far deadlier horsemen.

Second Horseman - Defensiveness

When we feel that we are under attack, we get defensive. We will try to protect our ourselves; to defend our innocence or divert a perceived attack. However, this strategy is rarely successful. In its essence, defensiveness is a way of blaming our partner and avoiding to acknowledge our responsibility for the problem. Because of defensiveness, the problem will not be solved and it will probably escalate further. 

Defensiveness: Well, you didn't wash dishes for four days and now you expect me to do it? Why didn't you do it yesterday? 
Taking responsibility: Oops. I forgot. I should have asked you why the dishes are not washed when I saw everything in the sink this morning.

Third Horseman - Contempt

Contempt is defined as any verbal or nonverbal behavior that puts one person on a higher ground than the other. It includes behaviors like mocking, ridicule, calling names, rolling eyes, sneering in disgust, etc. Contempt's goal is to make the target feel worthless and despised. 

Contempt is the deadliest horseman because he destroys the appreciation in the relationship. Without any appreciation in the relationship, the relationship is doomed to fail. According to Gottman (1999), contempt is a strong predictor of relationship success. The amount of contempt in a stable successful relationship is “essentially zero”.


Contempt: You are such an idiot. Do not bother with the dishes. I would have to redo them anyways like I had to a few weeks ago.
Appreciation: I noticed that you were trying to help me with the dishes a few weeks ago. I am going to show you some tricks. 

Fourth Horseman - Stonewalling

Stonewalling is defined as an act when one person shuts down and closes off from the other. It represents a lack of responsiveness and interaction between us and our partner. Any form of disengagement can be stonewalling. 

Stonewalling represent an ineffective attempt to calm ourselves (or the situation) down. However, this attempt is usually not successful because the person who is stonewalling has negative thoughts over and over in their minds, and the person who is experiencing the stonewalling often finds it very upsetting to be ignored. Therefore, the person who is being stonewalled will attempt to re-engage the stonewaller. In other words, they fight harder or louder. 

A Mighty Tool: Couples Therapy

To overcome relationship difficulties such as harmful communication styles - criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling - must be recognized and stopped. Being aware of and avoiding these communication styles is a key to opening constructive communication, enabling positive conflict resolution and deepening our relationships. 

I already talked about how Couples Therapy can be an effective tool in overcoming relationship difficulties in my previous article (Overcoming Relationship Issues: Communication). This time, I would like to stress the importance of Couples Therapy regarding the Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse.

It is difficult to think about our communication styles when we are consumed with the conflict in our relationship. However, a professional who is trained to notice these communication styles can help us gain an insight into our situation and provide us with effective tools in order to avoid and manage these harmful communication styles. 

In Couples Therapy, we will be able to:
  • find a safe environment and work with a trained professional
  • gain an insight into our situation
  • learn new skills to recognize and avoid harmful communication styles
  • learn how to manage and deal with harmful communication styles
  • feel more committed and dedicated to healing our wounds and make our relationship worth having
  • learn how to recover and heal after we overcome the difficulties in our relationship
  • grow together with our partner
  • make our relationship a thriving relationship

Research has shown that most couples wait for six years after they know their relationship is in serious trouble before they seek therapy (Notarius & Buongiorno, 1992, as cited in Gottman & Gottman, 1999) So, after six years of unhappiness, couples decide to work on their problems. This is quite alarming for some couples as critical damage may be done during those six years.  Therefore, it is important to decide to talk with someone who can help sooner rather than later.


It is important to note that happy and successful marriages are not free of criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. However, in successful marriages, these negative interactions happen less frequently and are often accompanied by successful repair attempts. Furthermore, although these Horsemen may be present at times, however, they are outnumbered by positive interactions at least five-to-one positive-to-negative ratio. Although, there is no room for contempt in successful marriages. 

In regards to the Couples Therapy, when we recognize that there is a problem, we should not wait. We should talk with someone who can help before any critical damage is done. Especially because attending Couples Therapy is one way of demonstrating a commitment to work on, and enhance our relationship.


Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically based marital therapy. New York, NY: Norton.

Gottman J.M. & Gottman J.S. (1999). The marriage survival kit. In Berger, R. & Hannah, M.T., (Eds.), Preventative approaches in couples therapy (pp. 304-330). Philadelphia, PA: Brunner/Mazel.

Gottman, J.M., (1994). An agenda for marital therapy. In S. Johnson & L. Greenberg (Eds.), The heart of the matter: Perspectives on emotion in marital therapy, (pp. 256-293). New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel.

About the Author

Hilda Huj Hilda Huj, B.A., M.A.

Hilda is a registered clinical counselling and forensic psychologist in Edmonton, Alberta. She specializes in working with youth, adults and families that have been impacted by trauma. She completed a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degree in Psychology in Osijek, Croatia, and subsequently equated her academic credentials to Canadian standards. Currently, she volunteers with the Edmonton Police Services as a Victim Support Worker and also helps to promote Psychology by volunteering for the Psychologists’ Association of Alberta.

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