The Four Horsemen: Predictors of Divorce and Ways To Avoid Them

You shouldn’t just get married for love. You should get married for compatibility.
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on

Having a successful relationship is not a matter of chance. It’s a matter of identifying synergistic traits between you and your partner.

You get butterflies in your stomach.

You search for articles highlighting any reason to stay together.

You stay up all night sending each other voice notes.

If you’re like me, you’ve spent too many hours in a relationship wondering if you should stick it out.

You don’t know what the future holds, you don’t know what you can withstand, you don’t know what will pull your relationship apart; even with a seemingly perfect partner, it takes work.

In a world where everyone seems to be turning to hate and resentment, where relationships aren’t valued, I want us to succeed. I want us to say that we’ve explored all our options, that we’ve poured out our heart. Then and only then, we know, that no matter what happens we can truly say that we’ve tried with the person we love.

John Gottman is a recognized relationship expert and founder of the Gottman Institute. He discovered four markers of relationship failure that predict divorce with 93% accuracy. Recognizing these traits is a step we can take in maintaining successful relationships with one another.

These traits are known as the four horsemen of the apocalypse:





The phrase originated from a Bible prophecy in the book of Revelation.

The horsemen predict the events before the end of the world.

The first horseman is on a white horse. He brings conquest. He overcomes and takes control.

The second horseman is on a red horse. He carries a sword and is allowed to remove peace from the Earth, causing war.

The third horseman is on a black horse, he has a pair of weighing scales. He represents famine.

The last horseman is on a pale horse, his name is Death, and causes death through war, famine, infestations and wild animals.

Pretty gloomy. No wonder Gottman chose these to represent doom in relationships.

All relationships will have some aspects of these traits, but healthy relationships work on minimizing their use.

The horsemen are not restricted to intimate relationships but can be used with friends, or family members.


The first horseman is criticism. Criticism is disapproving perceived negative traits in your partner. You think you’re better than them, thus have the right to judge them. It’s different from giving a person critique.

Criticism generalizes your partner as being less than, while critique focuses on individual action or a specific mistake:

Criticism: You always leave the tap running. You’re so inconsiderate. You only think about yourself.

Offering Critique: I don’t like it when you leave the tap running. It gets water everywhere, I feel frustrated. Please turn it off next time.

Notice that criticism faults the other person. It takes responsibility away from the accuser by the constant use of you, though both parties are responsible for their actions.

Why is criticism so terrible in a relationship?

Criticism tells a person that you don’t like them. It says, I want you to change vs. I want you to change your behaviour.

You focus on them when you should be focusing on yourself, on how you can be happy, despite their actions; how you can live life without relying on them.

This means accepting them as they are, leaving, or whatever alternative works for you.

Nagging causes your partner to feel unappreciated, inadequate, attacked, and rejected. They may seek validation somewhere else, from someone else. When criticism escalates it leads to the second horseman, which is contempt.


Contempt is thinking that a person is beneath consideration, they are scorned, looked at in disgust. Contempt can be displayed in the form of mimicking, eye-rolling, or scoffing.

It’s meant to make your partner feel worthless, undeserving of being in your presence.

Criticism is thinking a person isn’t good enough. Contempt is showing them they’re not good enough.

Contempt, of all the four horsemen, is the greatest determinant of divorce.

What to do about contempt?

Disagreements with your partner should be dealt with promptly to avoid contempt. When a problem is left to simmer, the person holding the grudge reaches a point of explosion. It appears to come out of nowhere, but they’ve been stiflingly contempt.

Couples who show contempt towards each other also have an increased risk of getting an infectious illness such as the cold, or flu.


Criticism leads to defensiveness. Defensiveness often comes in the guise of playing the victim in an attempt to disarm the other person.

This method rarely works. Defensiveness says I refuse to listen to your concerns, I view them as personal attacks.

Defensiveness looks like this:

Were you able to pick up the dry cleaning today as we agreed?

You know my day is busy, maybe you should have picked it up. If I counted the number of times between the both of us, I’ve done more.

A defensive response shifts the blame and minimizes responsibility. A defensive person does not hear you, nor do they seek to understand you. Their main priority is to protect their ego.

A healthy response sounds like:

I’m so sorry. I got caught up with work and forgot. I should have asked if you could have done it, that’s my fault. I’ll go do it now.”

Understandably, you want to defend yourself when feeling attacked, and in some cases appropriate. However, repeated defensiveness is ineffective and will only escalate the conflict, especially if neither person backs down or apologizes.

Defensiveness is a method of blaming, not conflict resolution.

Prolonged defensiveness leads to stonewalling.


Stonewalling happens when one partner pulls away from the conversation or shuts down. The stonewaller pretends to be busy, making their partner feel like a placeholder, or invisible, instead of a person.

Stonewalling looks like this:

I get upset when I’m questioned like this. I feel like I’m being interrogated for no reason.


Can we talk about this? What can we do to make this better?

(Radio silence)

Gottman suggests that stonewalling is predicted by a heart rate above 100 beats per minute. It’s marked by other physiological symptoms such as the release of stress hormones and initiating the fight or flight response. The stonewaller shuts down because they are trying to keep calm, or from exploding. They are hoping their partner will pull back so they can process their anger and de-escalate.

Stonewalling is a late sign of distress in a relationship as it blocks communication. When communication is ineffective nothing gets solved and you continue to grow apart.

Now What?

The four horsemen of the apocalypse, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling represent doom in a relationship.

They also represent the starting point in healing your relationship.

If you’re interested in mending your relationship it’s important to notice when these horsemen creep up to avoid hating each other.

Michelle Obama and her husband, the former president of the United States, had relationship problems, they went to couples therapy and use it as an area of strength, not shame.

Let’s look deeper into remedying each of the four horsemen.

Remedy for criticism

You’re going to be unhappy with some things your partner does in the relationship. That’s not an issue, the problem is the way you express it.

Gottman suggests using a gentle start-up. This addresses the issue in a straightforward way, while keeping it positive, and avoiding blame.

Every complaint is really a desire for something you need from your partner.

Asking yourself the following questions can help you process what you need from them while keeping positive.

What emotions do I feel?

What do I need from my partner in this circumstance?

An often undervalued aspect of communication is tone. You can say something very direct without appearing rude or condescending by adjusting tone.


Ask for what you need behind the criticism, (attention, rest, intimacy).

Avoid using a condescending tone.

Remedy for contempt

Contempt is best resolved by reflecting inwards to identify your thoughts and feelings about a specific issue.

Focus on yourself, how you can improve versus your partner. Learn to create happiness without relying on them. I know it sounds counter intuitive, but granting them a sense of freedom creates freedom and peace for yourself, it gives them space to appreciate and miss you. This isn’t for the faint of heart, this may take a while depending on the amount of contempt you’ve built up. Hang in there if you’re intent on fighting for your relationship.

You can also decrease contempt by showing appreciation and respect for your partner. Gottman speaks to the 5:1 ratio, which is having 5 or more positive reactions to every one negative reaction. This is displayed in showing regular affection, appreciation, attention, gratitude, and respect.


Focus on making yourself happy despite your partner.

Practice showing regular appreciation, respect, affection, and gratitude.

Remedy for defensiveness

Defensiveness is resolved by taking responsibility, even if it’s only for your part of the conflict.

In a healthy relationship, your partner is not going to get defensive when discussing a problem. They validate you by expressing interest in your concern. They don’t brush you off or take it personally, they make an attempt to understand how you feel.

It’s difficult to admit or see our faults. This is called a blind spot, an area of improvement that others can see but we can’t.

You can get more insight into defensiveness by asking close family members and friends for feedback about areas of weakness in your personality.

These people should have your best interests in mind, they offer critique to help you better yourself. Do not ask people who constantly put you down or have a toxic effect on your life.


Take responsibility for where you were wrong.

Identify your blind spot by asking close friends and family to point out areas of weakness in your personality.

Remedy for stonewalling

We’ve learned that stonewalling produces a physical stress response in the body. When this happens it can be almost impossible to concentrate on having a discussion in a meaningful way.

You should give the stonewaller time to calm down. This means stopping the argument. Unfortunately walking away from an argument mid-sentence may add more fuel to the fire.

It’s better to discuss how you’re going to argue beforehand. Make an agreement that, if the “time out” hand signal is held up or a certain phrase is said, it means that you’ve reached a boiling point. Use whatever you like, as long as you both understand its meaning.

This is the perfect time to practice self-soothing. Use the time to engage in healthy grounding behaviours, whether it’s going to your favourite recliner, watching a show, or listening to music.


Agree about how you will argue before the argument.

Practice self-care. What do you need in order to feel calm?

While all relationships have some aspects of the four horsemen, successful ones limit their use or address them before they escalate.

The four horsemen give you a starting point, a definite road map as to the direction of your relationship.

They are indicators of the death of a relationship, but more importantly, navigation tools, that if you choose, can turn your relationship around, leading to life, to success.

The four horsemen are predictors of divorce but they also serve as a roadmap to healing and having a successful relationship.

Thanks for reading ~A~

Originally published in Medium-Assemblage

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