Which Horse Are You Riding On? / by Dr. Natalia P Zhikhareva

Ever wonder what predicts divorce or a break up in a relationship?  I do!  And so did Dr. John Gottman, known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis. 

Gottman employs scientific direct observations and methods to study marriages.  In his research, he found that not all negatives are alike. 

According to his scientific studies, four patterns of interaction stood out as the most predictive of marital conflict and – ultimately – divorce.  He named these four patterns The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The Four Horsemen are a well-known metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament.  They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively.  Gottman, cleverly, uses this metaphor to refer to communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship.


Criticism is attacking your partner’s personality or character.  It is implying that there is something wrong with them.

Note that criticism is different than offering a critique or having a complaint.  The difference?  Critique and complaint are often about a specific issue.  Criticism attacks your partner at the core. 

In criticism, you frame your complaints as if there’s something defective in your partner.

Here is how complaint sounds: “The lights are on.  Please try to turn them off before you go to sleep.”

Criticism: “The lights are on again.  What’s wrong with you?   Are you lazy or stupid to keep forgetting turning them off?"


Defensiveness is an attempt to protect yourself.  To defend your innocence.  To ward off a perceived attack.  Often it takes a form of counter complaint or whining.

Why is defensiveness bad?  It keeps partners from taking responsibility for problems and escalates negative communication.  The antidote is to try to hear your partner’s complaint and to take some responsibility.

Example of defensiveness: “Please be careful with credit card purchases.  You end up spending more than we can afford.” – “What about money you spend on your own stuff?  I never complain about that!”


In stonewalling, one partner withdraws from the conversation as a way to avoid conflict.  The stonewaller might actually physically leave or they just stop tracking the conversation and appear to shut down.

According to Gottman, people often stonewall because they become overwhelmed internally aka flooded.  Their heartbeat races.  They stop thinking clearly.  They get highly agitated.

Partners who stonewall may think they are trying to be ‘neutral.’  But ‘neutral’ they are not!  Because stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation, disconnection, and smugness.


Ever mocked your partner as an attempt to put them down?  That’s contempt.  Contempt is communicating from the state of being mean, treating others with disrespect, using sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, eye-rolling.

The partner feels despised and worthless.  There is no antidote for contempt.  It is toxic and cannot be replaced with anything.  It must be eliminated.  No wonder it is equivalent to the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse – DEATH.

Knowing what the four horsemen are is important.  Recognizing them within your relationship is vital!  So which horse have you been riding on lately?


John Gottman’s  Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  http://www.azgrowth.com/4Horsemen.pdf

The Gottman Institute.  http://www.gottman.com/

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.  JohnGottman and Nan Silver.  http://www.amazon.com/Seven-Principles-Making-Marriage-Work-ebook/dp/B000FC1KCU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1432230074&sr=8-1&keywords=john+gottman

Which horseman do you think is the most dangerous and disruptive to the relationship?