Signs of Relationship Strain: Gottman & The "Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse"

Updated September 13, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

In the 1980s, John Gottman, a couple's therapist, began developing a couple's counseling approach called the Gottman method. What is the Gottman method for relationships? This methodology for treating relationships is rigorous and based on thorough scientific research and a deep understanding of human behavior and needs. Since its inception, it has helped thousands of couples identify serious problems in their relationships and find ways to move forward together.

As with other scientific disciplines, one of the hallmarks of Gottman's method is its predictive power. For couples, this has manifested as an ability to predict which relationships were likely to end in divorce. While the accuracy has varied from 70%-90%, it enables an impressive ability to spot relationship-ending problems before they become unmanageable, even on the low-intensity end.

The primary method for doing so is by using Gottman's “Four Horsemen.” As with the original horsemen of the apocalypse, these concepts are hallmarks that a relationship is heading in a disastrous direction. They do not dictate that the relationship is untenable; however, they do serve as a sign that action must be taken and that certain issues in the relationship have the capacity to do lasting damage.

This article will discuss how Gottman developed the four horsemen concept, what the four horsemen are in the Gottman method, how to spot them in your relationship, and what you can start to respond to the harbingers of stress.

John Gottman's Relationship Research

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Certain Behavioral Patterns Can Threaten Relationships

After years of professional experience, Gottman believed that while there was great value in relationship therapy, there was a chance for something greater to be developed. He envisioned a methodology that incorporated a deeply human understanding of the experience of being in a relationship with extensive research and analysis to explain the feelings, thoughts, and actions people described. 

His research spanned years and included everything from simple interviews with patients to having couples spend a night in a controlled environment with extensive monitoring. He pushed the understanding of relationship dynamics to a new level of holistic information gathering.

He was able to do this by observing relationships more entirely than most counselors can. Rather than simply having an hour or so a week with a couple, he would engage with his patients for longer periods. One of the benefits of this level of engagement was that he could see when small issues turned into big issues, and he could see broader patterns. When working with couples, it can be hard to separate the surface-level issues from the deeper problems. A big issue like a lack of trust can be obscured by constant arguments about dishes, errands, money, etc.

Gottman identified several major themes that contribute to relationship success and failure. His primary goal in this was to clarify the building blocks of a healthy and loving relationship. In this, he succeeded by developing his Sound Relationship House model of a good relationship. However, he could also identify the common elements of relationships that don't work and are more likely to fail. These became known as the four horsemen.

The Four Horsemen Of The Gottman Method

The four horsemen of the Gottman Method are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt in relationships. Any one of them is a sign of deeper issues that threaten the relationship's ability to survive. None of them alone are necessarily deal-breakers, and they can all be addressed through the Gottman method, but identifying them early can save a lifetime of trouble.

Criticism

When someone you love does something that hurts your feelings, it can quickly ramp up your emotional responses. We end up saying things we would not normally say because it comes from a thoughtless reactive space rather than a genuine desire to get what we want. For example, if your partner says they think you should wear a different shirt, you're more likely to say, "Why do you always have to be so judgmental?!?" than saying something that expresses your feelings and focuses on the specific issue at hand.

This has the counterproductive effect of making them feel attacked, often leading to defensiveness or criticism in return.

Defensiveness

Defensiveness is when we respond to perceived injustice by presenting excuses and making ourselves out to be victims. Even worse, this reaction can be caused by seemingly harmless behavior. Responding defensively to criticism seems obvious, but defensiveness can spring up even when someone is just checking up on something you said you would do. A question as light as "Hey, did you remember to get milk?" can touch off a defensive response that leads to a bad place quickly.

We all make mistakes, and it's okay to admit fault. But when we don't feel safe with the other person, it becomes very hard to do that, and it can even feel necessary to fight against any perception of blame. When people are struggling to trust one another, defensive reactions are common.

Stonewalling

The silent treatment – we’ve all heard of it. When someone sits silently while you rave and yell, when someone refuses to answer questions or even apologize, when they don't engage, those are all signs of stonewalling. It's an entire breakdown of communication, and responsiveness is key to creating positive feedback cycles that can improve relationships.

Ilona Titova/EyeEm

Sometimes it can feel like the only reasonable response is to say nothing. If everything you say leads to perceived criticism, silence can feel safer. If you ask someone for help, and they lash out defensively, pulling back can feel like the only solution. Before it happens, stonewalling sounds drastic, but if negative interactions are persistent and there seems to be no solution, silence can creep in.

Contempt

Contempt can be the ugliest of the four horsemen. Contempt is when you have little to no respect for your partner and when you look down on everything they do and who they are. You respond to their comments or actions with judgment or even ridicule. Nothing they do is good enough, and in fact, they are often seen as someone to be despised.

Gottman identified contempt as the most damaging of the four horsemen. There are changes in behavior you can make for others, and the root of the issue can be the way you are talking to each other. With contempt, however, the problem is rooted in how you perceive your partner at their core. If you have stopped seeing the good in one another and started even to hate each other, that can be very challenging to overcome.

All four horsemen can be seditious in that they don't suddenly emerge overnight. Defensive reactions can crop up occasionally and briefly over time, then grow until they are the primary way you respond to one another. Contempt often starts as a tiny seed of loathing for an aspect of a person's character but can expand to color the way you see more and more of your partner. Whatever problem you may be facing, major issues often have humble beginnings.

If one partner is resorting to criticism, then the other partner may start responding defensively. If both groups continue to feel like they are getting emotionally damaged with every conversation, one or both people can pull back and start stonewalling. Soon each person is left feeling stuck with someone who doesn't listen and doesn't care, which can quickly breed contempt.

This is just one example of how different horsemen can cause others. There is no formula for how they interact, but issues like this rarely occur in isolation.

How To Spot The Four Horsemen In Your Relationship

There are hallmarks for each of the four horsemen. Criticism usually manifests as judging the other person's character rather than talking about the specific issue at hand. If you find many statements about how you are as people rather than what you are doing at that moment, you are probably struggling with criticism.

Like criticism, if you respond to questions or critiques with stories of how it's not your fault and even try to make the other person feel bad for judging you, then defensiveness is probably present.

Easier to spot even if it's harder to handle, stonewalling is a lack of communication. If you or the other person are shutting down during hard conversations or cutting things off rather than talking them through, stonewalling is probably the culprit.

Contempt is the most threatening horseman to a relationship and often the hardest to spot. We don't tend to admit to contempt, especially when we're not supposed to feel it for someone like a spouse. If you find yourself hating everything the other person does and getting angry when they even open their mouth, contempt may be present.


When looking for these issues, it always helps to try to start with a balanced perspective. It can be tempting, especially when hurt or angry, to lash out or blame the other person. However, even if the bulk of the responsibility eventually falls with the other person, it is never helpful to start by placing it there. Approach issue identification to understand what is happening, not who is at fault.

General Tools For Addressing The Four Horsemen

First, consider getting help. Handling some issues like stonewalling, for example, may be manageable with patience and practicing small changes. However, confronting contempt can be much harder because it can be almost impossible to engage at all before things spiral out of control. Having a neutral observer can solve this problem.

Sometimes the way you figure out what is wrong is by solving the problem you think you have. For example, if you believe criticism is the issue, making an effort to be gentler in your conversations can be a simple trial solution. If it doesn't work, it may be because you the issue you thought was the issue isn't exactly the issue. If one partner is angry because their partner doesn't compliment their outfits, but then they do, and the first partner is still angry, that's a clear sign that something else is likely going on.

Try making slight changes. It can often feel like solving big problems requires big solutions. However, negative relationship environments are not necessarily tied to one major cause. It can also be the result of small but continuous actions that create a negative environment. The solution at times like this may be to focus on making small changes that start to decrease the tension.

For example, if one person feels disrespected, making a small change in tone or language can go a long way. This can also apply to large issues. While fear of intimacy won't necessarily go away just because you start smiling at one another a little more, it can create an environment where you feel more comfortable discussing that fear.

The Four Horsemen Represent Danger And Opportunity

When we struggle in our relationships, it can affect our whole lives. The problems can feel scary, and worst of all, the person you thought you could rely on the most is often the source of the problem. However, these problems are also opportunities you can capitalize on in order to strengthen your relationship. Every relationship has problems and takes work. The hallmark of long-term success is how you process these issues together.

When it comes to the four horsemen, the negative behaviors are often unconscious, so identification can be harder than usual. Having a couple's counselor is an invaluable asset for many couples.

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Certain Behavioral Patterns Can Threaten Relationships

Couple’s counselors have helped countless relationships solve seemingly irreparable damage and move towards a new life together. Professionals like the ones at Regain can help you start working towards a new lifestyle today.

Regain is one of several online therapy platforms that many people consult for support in their relationships. One of the reasons people find Regain advantageous is because it enables users to schedule appointments at convenient times instead of having to compromise other priorities to attend an in-person therapist appointment at the same time each week or biweekly. Additionally, Regain allows users to attend therapy sessions from the comfort of their own homes, offices, or any other preferred locations – all you need is a safe internet connection. This means that if you and your partner have busy work schedules, it might be easier to attend appointments at the same time because you don’t have to be in the same physical space.

Online counselors are certainly able to employ the Gottman method, as well as other therapeutic approaches, when conducting online therapy sessions. In one recent study, practitioners used an online Gottman psychoeducational intervention to evaluate its effectiveness in improving marital communication patterns among 72 heterosexual couples who had been married between one and seven years. The results indicated that the online Gottman psychoeducational intervention improved couples’ constructive communication significantly (45% for husbands and 40% for wives) and decreased mutual avoidance communication, as well (by 60% for husbands and by 62% for wives). 

Takeaway

The Gottman Method was designed to help all couples live healthier, loving lives. He found that common threads connect the couples that didn't make it through his work. Anyone can experience them, and they can be solved with patience and hard work. However, they are also threatening to emotional stability and should not be taken lightly. If you feel that stonewalling, criticism, contempt, or defensiveness are threatening your relationship, known that you can reach out to a licensed online therapist who can use proven strategies to help you and your partner turn your arguments into opportunities for growth. When you’re ready, you can reach out to a counselor at Regain.

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