John Gottman borrowed the four horsemen of marriage from the four horsemen of the apocalypse in the Christian religion. Recognizing the four horsemen in your own relationship is crucial for you both to mitigate a destructive fight.The four horsemen of marriage are behaviors and feelings that can destroy a healthy relationship according to John Gottman, founder of Imago Relationship Therapy. Contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness are destructive behaviors that can strike at the core of the bond between you and your spouse, making intimacy nearly impossible.
How to Recognize, Anticipate & Mitigate Destructive Behavior
If you feel tension rising and think a disagreement or encounter with your husband or wife could escalate into an unproductive fight, stop engaging and tell them you need a time out. If you develop a safe word for time outs together you will both recognize it immediately and stop before someone’s feelings get hurt.
Four Horsemen in Marriage Explained
Click on the links below to jump to the section about each of the four destructive behaviors that can ruin a relationship.
Criticism is when you attack your partner’s character or personality, rather than their behavior. While there is no excuse for criticizing your partner it is normal for a husband or wife to target the person they see the most, especially after a stressful day at work. Just because they are an easy target doesn’t mean it is right or less destructive.
If you are dumping your frustration onto your partner, you need to learn new coping mechanisms and self-soothing strategies to help you stop hurting your partner. If you recognize this behavior in yourself, tell them and apologize. Maybe you can figure out a way to work on it together.
This is when you show your partner that you think they are inferior to you. Even casual slights can add up over time, causing layers of emotional trauma that do not heal quickly.
If your partner makes you feel like you are not their equal it’s time to take inventory of your relationship expectations. Once you have you can schedule a time to sit down with your partner and express how this behavior makes you feel inferior. Together you can come up with a strategy or safe word to say when they make you feel this way to avoid an unnecessary escalation.
Oftentimes this behavior is unintentional and if you do not communicate how much it hurts you they will continue the destructive patterns of behavior.
This is when you refuse to take responsibility for your own behavior and instead blame your partner. Defensiveness can cause a ripple effect because often defensiveness is followed by hostile behavior toward the other partner. When someone in a marriage fears communication or has fragile self-esteem they lash out, blaming their partner rather than taking responsibility for a complaint.
A complaint is not criticism, but someone with low self-esteem feels like their weaknesses are being called out when their partner confronts them. This is a dangerous, unhealthy pattern because defensiveness can lead to contempt and criticism. In fact, a husband or wife who exhibits defensive behavior is likely to graduate to stonewalling their partner, an overt manifestation of blaming and invalidating their partner’s feelings.
Stonewalling is when you withdraw from your partner and refuse to communicate with them, dishing out white hot silent treatment. This behavior can take place over a manner of minutes but at its worst, days or weeks. The other partner is left feeling afraid to wake the sleeping dragon less he/she lash out at them with seething fire.
This leads to dread communication, where both parties are dreading but anticipating a volcanic fight. If your partner is stonewalling, write a note letting them know how you feel but express your concern for escalation and lay some ground rules for calling and respecting time outs when needed. With so many pent up feelings after experiencing or exhibiting the stonewalling behavior you are likely to experience flooding.
Flooding Destroys Productive Communication
When a person feels physically, mentally, and emotionally overwhelmed during an argument their bodies send them into survival mode. Productive communication is impossible when a person feels flooded. If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed it is important to communicate your feelings and call a time out before your nervous system goes into survival mode, attacking and displaying defensiveness. However, make sure your partner knows that you intend to continue the conversation when you no longer feel overwhelmed or they may feel invalidated and ignored.
How to Recognize the Four Horsemen
- Pay attention to the way you talk to your partner. Are you constantly criticizing them? Do you make them feel like they are inferior? What triggers have you noticed them exhibit in the past, and is there a pattern?
- Are you quick to defend yourself when your partner brings up a topic causing conflict? Do you find yourself blaming them for your own problems instead of taking responsibility for your mistakes?
- Do you withdraw from your partner when you are upset? Do you refuse to talk to them or listen to them? Avoidant behavior like stonewalling is more common among men, but the rare instances when a woman stonewalls her husband are a clear indicator of divorce.
- Do you know which topics make your partner feel uncomfortable discussing? While it is unhealthy to avoid uncomfortable conversations there are strategies you can use to make the mood lighter and help them feel they are not being attacked or criticized.
What to Do If You Recognize the Horsemen of Relationship Apocalypse
If you recognize any of the four horsemen in your relationship, it is important to act. Talk to your partner about what is happening and how it is making you feel. Invite them to share their feelings as well so that together you can discover resources to help improve communication and renew intimacy in your marriage.
Seek professional help. An Imago marriage therapist can help you and your partner learn how to communicate more effectively at an intensive marriage counseling retreat, resolving conflict in a healthier way and allowing each of you to feel heard and validated.
Takeaways & Tools to Help Mitigate the 4 Horsemen
The four horsemen are destructive forces that can ruin a relationship. If you recognize them in your own marriage, it is important to take action and seek help from an experienced Imago relationship therapist. Check out our Imago therapy worksheets, resources, books, and downloadable PDFs to work on healthier communication with your partner at home. With conjoined efforts, you and your partner can learn to communicate more effectively, building a stronger relationship and deeper connection.