The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

by Kassandra Lamb ~ One of the big names in the field of researching marriage and divorce is Dr. John Gottman. He uses this line (from Revelations in the Bible)—the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—to describe the four predictors of divorce.

I will briefly describe them, then talk about their opposites; in other words, what you need to do instead, if you want a healthy long-term relationship. (For more details and examples, click on the links to the posts on these topics.)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- symbolizing the four predictors of divorce

Criticism – Of course all couples have complaints about some of their spouses’ behaviors. But Gottman contends that when complaints about behavior deteriorate into criticism of the person’s character, the couple’s relationship is going in the wrong direction.

Contempt – Over time, criticism may morph into contempt, in which one partner acts disrespectfully toward the other and assumes a position of superiority. (Or they may take turns doing this to each other.) This may take the form of ridicule, name-calling (idiot, selfish, etc.), sarcasm, eye-rolling or other derisive body language, etc.

Defensiveness – This is refusing to take any responsibility for any part of a problem and/or deflecting blame onto one’s partner. This may be one party’s defense against criticism or contempt, or one or both partners may be defensive by nature. In the latter instance, they may get defensive in response to even the most carefully phrased complaints about behavior.

Stonewalling – Gottman originally called this “Withdrawal.” He identified this as the sign that the relationship might very well be beyond the point of no return. Withdrawal or stonewalling is when one party stops listening at all. They withdraw from the interaction and shut down. They may shrug and walk away. Or they may just stop talking and wait for their spouse to wind down, maybe while doing some distracting activity such as washing the dishes.

(For more on these four predictors of divorce, see my more detailed post HERE. And/or check out this article, plus a cool video with more examples.)

My Counterpoints to the Four Horsemen

When I first started teaching psychology at the college level, I developed this list of the counterparts of the Horsemen. I consider them to be the four most important factors in healthy long-term relationships. (Again, these also apply to friendships.)

Unconditional Love and Acceptance:

This is the opposite of criticism and contempt. One can still complain about behavior and ask their spouse to change those irritating behaviors. But you accept their person as they are, warts and all.

This is sometimes easier said than done. First of all, where is the line between behavior and being? Behaviors may not be as easy to change as one might think they should be, if they are ingrained in the person’s makeup.

Mutual Trust and Respect:

These too are the opposites of criticism and contempt. Indeed, if you nurture an attitude of respect and trust, then criticism and contempt will not be able to take root in your relationship.

But again, respect is not always as easy as it sounds. For one thing, respect includes honoring the things that your partner feels are important even if you don’t.

the opposites of the four predictors of divorce -- communication and commitment
photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

Mutual trust is the flip side of the respect coin. If you are respectful of each other, that makes you more trustworthy.

It is also important that you be trustworthy in the areas that are most important to your spouse, and vice versa. This often comes down to shared values.

How trustworthy each person is in the various aspects of life is something a couple hopefully identifies and deals with before getting married. If one partner is not trustworthy in an area that is important to the other, and they can’t come up with a work-around, than they might not be a good match.

Good Communication:

This is the opposite of both criticism and defensiveness. If either of these are part of your or your partner’s communication style, then that needs work!

Learning to communicate appropriately is crucial to a healthy relationship.

The best approach to breaking the criticism, contempt or defensiveness tendencies is to use “I” statements as much as possible to describe your feelings, needs and desires. Rather than pointing the finger of blame at your partner, you own those feelings and needs and let them know why the topic at hand is important to you.


This is the opposite of stonewalling. Commitment can best be defined as a willingness to make the effort to maintain the relationship.

When a recurring problem never seems to get resolved and you feel like you and your partner are just going around in circles, instead of withdrawing, try shifting to a different approach. Practice those “I” statements and fight the urge to be defensive until you both have a better handle on the other’s point of view. Often the solution will present itself at that point.

If both partners are truly committed to the relationship but the unhealthy communication patterns of criticism and defensiveness seem to be too ingrained, this is where counseling can really help. Because communication patterns can be changed. It just takes work.

Again, for more details and some examples of how these factors help maintain a healthy relationship, check out my longer post on the topic.

Then take a look at the next topic page, addressing gender differences that can trip us up in relationships.