Every relationship has its ups and downs, especially the longer two people are together. Disagreements and even some arguments are natural. You might even feel the need to take some major space at moments. I know I’ve personally been guilty of rolling my eyes at a partner when things were prickly between us. But when is an eye roll, a scoff, or even a temporary cold shoulder a sign of something greater? According to psychologist John Gottman, all of those might be indicative of what he calls The Four Horsemen of Relationships—a theory that suggests that the appearance of certain behaviors can spell certain doom for some couples.

The Four Horsemen of Relationships consist of Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.

Criticism refers mainly to criticizing your partner directly versus just making a complaint about something they did (or failed to do), such as failing to load the dishwasher one night. Think: criticizing the way they do certain chores, criticizing their looks, their job, their interests, etc.

“These unkind words can leave the criticized partner feeling less than, rejected, flawed, or not good enough. If left unchecked, criticism can worsen your relationship and make room for the other Horsemen to follow quite easily,” says Monique Dunn, an LCSW-S and licensed therapist and owner of Destination Therapy.

Contempt shows up in our treatment of our partners, which might include using sarcasm, berating and ridiculing them, and being otherwise disrespectful. It’s like criticism x 100. The eye-rolling I mentioned above could technically fall into this category, depending on the situation. Mostly, the contemptuous partner is looking to hurt the receiver (but sometimes both partners will do this back and forth).

“Contempt can push your relationship to the point of no return because it usually indicates a build-up of negativity and resentment, clouding any chance of positivity seeping back into your view of the relationship,” says Paige Bond, LMFT and founder of Couples Counseling of Central Florida.

The third is Defensiveness—being unable to take responsibility for one’s actions and/or accept fair critiques. In a state of defensiveness, one will look for excuses rather than simply apologize for a behavior or action, and may even turn it around to blame the other partner.

“Where there is a lot of criticism, there is often a lot of defensiveness in return, and this cycle can be incredibly negative,” Dunn says.

The final Horseman is Stonewalling. Often the result of too much contempt in a relationship, this is when a partner decides to “check out” of the relationship, often failing to interact with or even respond to their partner. They might act busier than they actually are, turn away from their partner during conversation or even when they enter the room, or simply stay distracted at all times so as not to have to engage. According to Gottman, this can be one of the most challenging habits to break.

picture of a couple dealing with the four horsemen of relationships

Can a relationship survive the appearance of one (or all) of the Horsemen?

Experts agree that even when one or more of the Horsemen are present, it’s still entirely possible to “save” or at least work on and improve the relationship.

Jackie Golob, a licensed professional clinical counselor and sex therapist at Shameless Therapy, views the Four Horsemen as learned behaviors that can be unlearned. “It just takes time, willingness, energy, and effort. One tip is to slow down and think about what you are saying and how you are saying it. Think through if it is truly helpful or harmful to that person or situation,” she says.

She also suggests practicing healthy communication while self-soothing one’s own emotions and staying mindful. “I wouldn’t say deflect the Four Horsemen—that’s avoidance. We need to increase our awareness to recognize and understand when (they) are happening.”

Something to keep in mind: While a relationship can survive the Four Horsemen of Relationships, Bond says if only one partner is willing to do the work, it’d be pretty difficult to salvage. “All partners need to decide if they’re willing to make these changes in their communication patterns for a better relationship.”

What are more ways to work against the Four Horsemen?


“If your automatic reaction to a situation is to be harsh or blame your partner, try waiting to have the conversation when you’re in a better headspace. This will allow you to calm down your nervous system and calmly approach the situation so you can use ‘I’ statements,” Bond says.

She also suggests that instead of quickly jumping to “You’re always late; I can never count on you,” you can just as easily try “I feel frustrated when you don’t come home from work on time because it’s hard to watch the kids and get dinner ready at the same time. How can we work together as a team to make this happen?”

Dunn recommends avoiding using absolutes like “you always” or “you never.”Instead, try to address the issue and share how you’re feeling without blaming your partner.


“Try focusing on what you’re feeling and using ‘I’ statements, leaning into fondness of your partner more often when communicating your preferences and needs rather than presenting it as unkind criticism,” Dunn says.

She uses the following example: Instead of saying, “It amazes me how all of a sudden, when the in-laws are visiting, you manage to cook a decent meal. If only they were around more, so I could eat like this more often,” opt for something like, “I enjoyed the meal you made last time the in-laws were in town and I appreciate the way you cooked that chicken dish. I would love it if you could make it again sometime—it was delicious.”

Bond recommends a similar approach to building a culture of appreciation.

“You might be doing this by being affectionate, complimenting your partner, or even thanking them for something they recently did. It can go a long way to say, ‘Thanks so much for giving the kids bath time while I cleaned up the kitchen. We make a really good team,’” she says.


Dunn recognizes that defensiveness creeps in often as a way to protect hurt feelings and bruised egos. “Instead of turning the tables and casting blame onto your partner, you can own what happened and try to meet your partner where they are by seeking to understand their viewpoint,” she says.

Bond agrees, saying defensive partners need to avoid taking things personally. “The best way to get out of the cycle even faster is to apologize swiftly and do it like you mean it. Instead of ‘I’m only late because traffic was bad,’ try ‘I’m so sorry I’m late. I know how tough it can be to juggle all these tasks at home by yourself.’”


“Completely shutting down during a discussion with your partner can be a defensive response when you are overwhelmed or what we as therapists call experiencing ‘emotional flooding.’ That feeling of flooding can be so overwhelming that it’s hard to recognize when it’s happening,” Dunn says.

She says building self-awareness of the pattern is key so that one can then create space to find equilibrium before the conversation continues. “Often with couples, I suggest that the partner who tends to stonewall ask for a break, but instead of leaving and shutting the partner out, there is an agreed-upon time frame for the break (e.g., 20 minutes to self-regulate), and the promise to return to the conversation after having this time to cool down.”

She also recommends working with a therapist to build those healthy coping skills to self-regulate in those moments when you want to break away and shut down.

Limitations & Critiques of the Four Horsemen Theory

“The Four Horsemen theory is a really great and simple concept for handling conflict. However, this concept may neglect diverse relationship dynamics, such as having neurodivergence present,” Bond says. She points to the way people on the autism spectrum or those who have other conditions present might communicate and perceive things differently than neurotypical people.

“For example, someone with autism may have difficulty interpreting social cues, which could lead to behaviors that mimic contempt or defensiveness when in reality, it’s not intentionally negative. Nonetheless, the Four Horsemen concept can be adjusted and applied as needed to fit your unique relationship,” she adds.

Golob agrees that while the theory scratches the surface, there isn’t a lot of inclusivity for neurodivergent folks. She also says it’s not as inclusive of LGBTQIA+ relationships either.

“It’s mainly cis heterosexual relationships, which is okay, and there are limitations to research because of that. What I often find with (neurodivergent) folks in therapy is that they need more concrete, tangible examples of what this looks like. [Also] there are more than four things to work on in a relationship,” Golob says.

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