Understanding “The Four Horsemen” and the Relationship Problems They Cause

No relationship is perfect. Different personalities come into play. Arguments happen. Things go up and down. But, conflicts don’t generally destroy a relationship. So, what does?

Relationship expert John Gottman has an uncanny “knack” for predicting divorce—with 93% accuracy. However, Gottman isn’t just good at reading people. He uses four relationship failure markers, often known as “The Four Horsemen.”

While the name itself might not seem so threatening, The Four Horsemen are critical components that cause a relationship to break down. These elements can also lead to a higher risk of divorce in married couples.

So, what are The Four Horsemen? The more you understand about these issues, the easier it can be to face them head-on, and get help when your relationship needs it.

What Are The Four Horsemen?

According to Gottman, The Four Horsemen are:

  1. Criticism – It’s not uncommon for couples to point out unwanted behavior during conflicts. But, criticism is usually an attack on someone’s personality or character, rather than specific actions. If it becomes a frequent pattern, it can chip away at the strength of a relationship.
  2. Defensiveness – While defensiveness may not seem troubling, it makes it easy to tune out what your partner is saying. When they don’t feel fully heard, it breaks down communication in your relationship, which is essential for stability and growth.
  3. Contempt – Contempt and disrespect tend to go hand-in-hand. When you show contempt for your partner, they could feel as though you’re looking down on them.
  4. Stonewalling – Sometimes, it might seem easier to just “ignore” your problems as a couple and become nonresponsive to what your partner has to say. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or angry, it’s okay to take a step back and find time to cool off. But, stonewalling your partner and essentially ignoring them will only make problems worse. Stonewalling takes you out of the relationship and suggests you’re not willing to work on it.

Is My Relationship in Danger? 

It’s important to understand that most relationships will experience one or more of these issues on occasion. You’re only human, and it’s easy to fall into bad habits or let behaviors get the best of you from time to time.

The difference is how often it happens. When these behaviors occur on occasion, it’s nothing to worry about. You should be aware of them, and try to “catch” yourself when you let one (or more) slip into a conflict with your partner.

The more aware you are of the issues, the less likely you’ll be to fall back on them frequently. However, when they become frequent and persistent, it could be a clear sign that your relationship is in trouble.

What Can I Do to Save My Relationship?

If you find that you and your partner engage in these behaviors frequently, the best thing you can do is seek professional help for your relationship.

The problem is that these aren’t effective ways to communicate. As stated above, without healthy communication, it’s hard for a relationship to last. Learning how to communicate with one another and understanding each other’s specific communication styles can make a big difference. Counseling can help.

If you’re struggling in your relationship and you’re worried that The Four Horsemen have a bigger place in your life than they should, don’t hesitate to contact us as soon as possible.

You don’t have to give up on your relationship. If you’re both willing to work on it and put in the effort, you can learn better ways of communicating and connecting that will make you a stronger couple than ever before.


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