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Explaining Gottman’s Four Horsemen and How to Address Them

In the Bible’s New Testament, the four horsemen (conquest, war, famine, and death) signalled the end of times. Similarly, Gottman’s four horsemen, which describe different conflict communication styles, are predictors of the end of a relationship. Notably, this suggests that it is not the appearance of conflict that leads to separation. Instead, it is the way individuals manage conflict that makes or breaks the relationship.

Read on to learn more about each of the four horsemen and how you can address them.


Criticism is not the same as complaining.

A complaint focuses on the problem and is a statement specific to the behaviour you hope to change. On the other hand, criticism is an attack on your partner’s character or personality, making your partner the problem.

Complaint: “I was worried when you didn’t call me. I thought we agreed to call if one of us was running late.”

Criticism: “You never think about how your actions affect other people. You’re always so selfish.”

As shown in the above example, criticism is when you frame your complaints as if something is wrong with your partner. A simple way to identify criticism is the use of “always” and “never,” which suggests that the issue results from your partner’s inherent and unchangeable flaws.

Criticism is rarely helpful; instead, it damages the fondness and admiration system, thus damaging your perception of your partner and the relationship. Moreover, it may pave the way for other negative behaviours to follow.

One way to turn your criticism into a complaint is to use “I” rather than “you” statements. When you focus on communicating your feelings and needs, you are less likely to point fingers and assign blame. 


Defensiveness is typically a response to criticism. Individuals tend to exhibit defensiveness by overexplaining, playing the innocent victim, and counter-criticising in hopes of getting their partner to back off.

While defensiveness is a natural reaction when you feel under attack, it is not helpful. Rarely does it ever de-escalate the conflict; if anything, it often creates a disconnect between partners and will likely amp up the criticism. This happens because it signals to your partner that you are not taking their concerns seriously, causing them to feel overlooked.

Therefore, it is essential to accept some responsibility, no matter how small. Look for things you agree with your partner, not what you disagree with. By taking a step back and trying to empathise with your partner, you can handle the conflict much more smoothly.


As suggested by its name, stonewalling refers to an individual acting like a stone wall: they withdraw from the interaction and no longer respond to their partner. Some examples of such nonverbal behaviour include looking away and crossing one’s arms.

Stonewalling typically occurs when an individual feels overwhelmed. In an attempt to calm down, they shut down and disengage from the conversation. However, this approach is ineffective for de-escalating conflicts. The person stonewalling often becomes consumed by negative thoughts, while the person being stonewalled feels upset and ignored.

If you feel the need to step away and calm yourself in the middle of a discussion, it is helpful to clearly communicate this to your partner. Let them know you require some time to yourself, and during this break, engage in soothing and distracting activities, such as listening to music or reading.

After about 20 minutes, you can re-engage the conversation. At this point, you and your partner can speak without being overwhelmed.


The most destructive of Gottman’s four horsemen is contempt. Contempt refers to attacking your partner intending to insult or abuse and involves putting your partner down by acting as if you are morally superior. This act includes verbal threats, name-calling, and eye-rolling.

Regularly expressing appreciation and affection for your partner helps create a positive relationship perspective, making you less likely to act contemptuously. It also helps to express understanding and use “I” statements instead of assigning blame. 


Every relationship is bound to experience one of the four horsemen at some point. The good news is that this doesn’t signal the end of your relationship. As long as you work on identifying these bad habits, you can reshape how you manage conflict and move forward in your relationship.

If you’d like help dealing with Gottman’s four horsemen, you can visit Executive Counselling for infidelity and marriage counselling. We also offer private counselling online, career counselling for professionals and executive coaching.