Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What not to do in your relationships: Gottman's "four horsemen of the apocalypse"

The last time you got into a fight with someone close to you, what emotions did you feel? How did you act? Did you criticize the other person, call them names, or roll your eyes as you sat in stony silence? Did you get defensive when they tried to explain what was wrong? Or maybe you were able to joke around and lighten the mood. Although everyone fights, people differ in how they deal with conflict. And it turns out that how we deal with conflict says a lot about the future of our relationships.

By watching couples fight, researcher John Gottman figured out what not to do if you want to make your relationship last. Last week I started a series of posts examining how to hold onto happiness in your relationships, and this week I want to talk about some of the seminal research in this area that looks at what behaviors to avoid if you want a happy ending. Specifically, Gottman discovered that there are four behaviors that are particularly detrimental to relationships. These behaviors are so detrimental that Gottman termed the “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” So who are these four horsemen?

Criticism: It’s okay (and can be healthy) to complain about what’s wrong in your relationship, the problem arises when complaining turns into criticizing. A complaint focuses on the event or behavior you want to change, whereas criticism attacks your partner’s personality. When you find yourself generalizing that your partner “always” or “never” does something, you are falling prey to criticism. For example, I may want to let my husband know that I find it annoying that we don’t travel very often. I could let him know just this – that I wish we traveled more. Or I could blame him for this problem and criticize him by saying something like “We never travel because you are always so selfish and don’t care about my interests.”* 

What to do instead: Try to state your complaint without blame. Let your partner know that you are unhappy about something, but don’t make it your partner’s fault. Avoid "always" and "never."

Defensiveness: This one is particularly hard for me. When someone suggests I’ve done something wrong, my instinct is to react quickly with an “It’s not my fault” followed by some excuse. Sometimes I go so far as to do this preventatively – defending myself before I’ve even been accused. Defensiveness also occurs when you respond to your partner’s complaints with complaints of your own, such as when your partner lets you know they find it annoying that you leave empty shampoo bottles in the shower and you respond by pointing out that you find it annoying when they don’t make the bed. 

What to do instead: The problem with defensiveness is that it doesn’t allow you to see your role in the problem and its frustrating for the other person who feels like they aren’t being heard. Take responsibility. If you partner lets you know that something you do bothers them, consider if they might be right and look for your part in the problem. I finally learned this lesson one summer in college when my sister and I were working together painting my parents’ house. Every time I’d make a mistake and she’d notice, I’d get defensive, she’d get frustrated and it just went downhill from there. Halfway through the summer I decided to try a different tactic – the next time she saw a mistake I’d made, I ‘fessed right up, apologized and asked what I could do to fix it. My sister told me it wasn’t that big of a deal and not to worry about it, just be aware for the future. I was amazed by how differently things turned out when I resisted the urge to be defensive and instead owned up to my mistakes. Of course, I’m sure my husband and family can attest that as enlightening as that summer was, I’m not completely cured of this habit.

Contempt: Everybody has their angry moments, but when you begin to feel contempt for your partner, that’s a clear sign that something needs to change. Contempt is the best predictor of divorce. Contempt is that feeling that you are better than your partner, and comes out when you make derisive comments to your partner with the intention of being insulting. If you are calling your partner names, mocking your partner and being sarcastic or rolling you eyes at him or her, you are likely feeling contempt. Sometimes you might tease your partner in the spirit of playfulness, which is beneficial. But if you find yourself teasing your partner in a mean-spirited way, such as making fun of something you know they are sensitive about, that is a sign of contempt. Calling your partner an idiot (and meaning it) is a surefire sign your relationship is in the dumps.

What to do instead: Instead of focusing on all the things that you hate about your partner, build a culture of appreciation where you focus on what your partner adds to your relationship. If you are feeling contemptuous, perhaps you need to take a moment to imagine what your life would be like if you’d never met your partner

Stonewalling: Stonewalling is not so much about what you do, but what you don’t do. Imagine how a stone wall would react to you when you told it how you were feeling. When you sit there in stony silence or utter single word answers, you are disengaging from the interaction. This happens in response to feeling overwhelmed by your partner’s strong negativity. Gottman has found that men are more likely than women to engage in stonewalling.
What to do instead: Instead of disengaging as a response to being overwhelmed, try letting your partner know that you need to take some time to calm down and plan to return to the conversation when you feel more relaxed.

Although I have described the four horsemen separately, they often go together – criticism from one partner may lead to the other partner’s defensiveness which may promote feelings of contempt, and eventually stonewalling. Couples who can joke, laugh and share moments (a touch, a quick smile) during a fight are better at combating this negative cycle and are happier with their relationships.

Do you have experience with the four horsemen? Are there other behaviors you think are really destructive for relationships?

*I don't really feel this way!


  1. I experience these four negative emotions regularly. Both myself and my girlfriend get defensive easily. I often resort to contempt and stonewalling, usually muttering to myself instead of to her. I didn't even realise I was stonewalling her until I read this post... Very interesting read..

    1. I think we all use these at times. Hopefully becoming more aware can help you break the cycle, but also remember that having negative interactions can be good for your relationship as long as you have a lot more positive interactions to balance them out!

      Thanks for reading,

  2. My boyfriend's a stone wall. It sucks. It's been a problem that I've discussed with him for the past 3.5 yrs only to receive little to no reaction, or he completely shuts down and says he doesn't want to talk or that there's nothing to discuss about. It's gotten to the point where I've had to vent to his own sister about it because everybody else seems to be stone walls. Fortunately, she was really understanding about it and acknowledged that he's always kept everything locked inside of him and didn't understand why he wouldn't open up.

  3. Good info- but contempt is before defensiveness.