What Does Gottman Mean By The Four Horseman, And Why Do They Matter?

The now famous couple’s therapy researcher John Gottman used the metaphor of the four horsemen of the apocalypse from The New Testament  to describe behaviors he observes in couples that can be used to predict the end of a relationship. It’s a powerful metaphor considering the four horsemen are bringing about the end of the world. If you find that you or your partner are engaging in any of these behaviors it may be time to enter into couples counseling.

Gottman’s four horsemen are as follows:

  • Criticism;

This refers to attacking your partner as opposed to critiquing a behavior or registering a complaint. Criticism is often preceded by a phrase such as “you always…” , or “you never…” If you assume that a couple loves one another, what would lead to behaviors where one attacks the other. Where one essentially says, “there is something wrong with you and that is causing me pain.” It comes down to the difficulty with vulnerability. The attacker for some reason is feeling threatened. Something that may or may not have to do with the partners behavior has triggered fear. 

The very nature of an intimate relationship can resonate with developmental traumas. However it does not have to be that dramatic. Something could be resonating with a previous relationship that went wrong. The point is the past is inserting itself into the present. In order to have healthy conflict, where differences can be explored and are not seen as threatening, a couple must learn to separate the past from the present. Couples therapy must explore the root of defensiveness.

  • Contempt

According to Gottman this is the most destructive of the four horsemen. If contempt is present in both partners, that couple is in trouble. I personally view contempt as a regression into adolescence. One or both of the partners become angry teenagers. Contempt conveys disdain and disgust. It involves sarcasm, mimicking, name calling, eye rolling, and condescension. 

The danger of contempt is its circular nature. Contempt from one induces contempt in the other. There is a level of sadism involved with contempt. It has the same roots as criticism, the past inserting itself into the present. The difficulty with breaking the contempt cycle is that one has to leave the mindset of righteousness and superiority and become vulnerable and compassionate. This shift in attitude needs to happen just as one is feeling  threatened and insecure. The contempt cycle can be broken in therapy when a couple recognizes what they are projecting on each other.

  • Defensiveness

We often become defensive when we are being criticized. However, defensiveness is usually a reaction to a critique. It often involves putting the blame back on our partner when a critique is made. Defensiveness is often a symptom of a disturbance in a couples communication. When we are defensive there is no vulnerability and therefore no connection. If we are feeling attacked we are not willing to listen to the needs of our partner. 

Defensiveness will inevitably invite the other horsemen into the relationship. The remedy for defensiveness is to get at the true source of fear, unresolved trauma, unresolved conflict from our past, some unmet developmental need, simply the wounds of our past that are being irritated by our present situation. In the presence of all the horsemen the remedy involves separating what is from what is imagined.

  • Stonewalling

There appears to be two types of stonewalling in Gottman’s literature that are not clearly delineated. One is a reflective refusal to make contact. In this form one partner engages in evasive maneuvers; Looking busy, changing subject, pouting, turning away, or any body language that says, “I’m refusing to engage.” This can result from one partner being conflict avoidant or simply exhausted from conflict or dealing with one or all of the previous three horsemen.

The other is a form of dissociation called hypo-arousal. This is always associated with trauma. The nervous system becomes  flooded from the triggering of unresolved trauma. The window of tolerance is exceeded and that person becomes non-functioning until the flooding stops. If this is happening it is a clear message that the unresolved trauma is calling out for treatment.

The common denominator  of all four of these  behaviors; Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling is that the past for one or both partners is inserting itself into the present. The solution to the breakdown in communication being announced by the four horsemen is couples therapy that can resolve the unfinished business of the past.