Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Four Toxic Relationship Behaviors

“Every marriage is a mistake.  Some people just cope with their mistake better than others.”

- Salvador Minuchin

Marriage is hard. Divorce statistics vary but according to the CDC, after ten years of marriage, approximately one third of couples will end in divorce (2002). It makes you wonder what the difference is between the couples that make it and those who don’t.  

Dr. John Gottman has devoted his life to answering this question.  Thirty years of exceptional research on thousands of couples has led him to some answers.  So much so, that within five minutes of observing a couple interact, he can predict with 91 percent accuracy whether or not the couple will stay together (Gottman & Silver, 1999).

One of the most significant pieces Gottman discovered was that couples who eventually separate tend to display the following: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.  He titled these “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”  (Gottman & Silver, 1999).

The Four Horsemen (Gottman & Silver, 1999)

Criticism involves partners who make a complaint about the other, while also adding blame and general character assassination to create an attack.  Example:  “Chad, I hate when you leave your dirty socks in the living room!  How can you stand to be such a pig?!”  

Contempt is any behavior that one partner displays to the other that conveys disgust.  It is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about your partner.

Defensiveness is one’s effort to defend themselves against an attack, which rarely has the desired effect of soothing the discord.  Such that Chad, in the previous example, would state “Hey, give me a break!  I’m tired at the end of the day.  One of us has to work around here!”  Essentially defensiveness blames the other person by saying “The problem isn’t me. It’s you.”  

The fourth horseman is stonewalling, which usually arrives later in the relationship after it is smothered in criticism, contempt, and defensiveness.  Stonewalling involves one partner completely disengaging from the interaction.  One might sit there and refuse to talk, or exit instead of discussing the issue.  The stonewaller essentially acts as if he could care less what the other partner is saying (1999).

These behaviors and characteristics can sound daunting, but they do not necessarily have to define your marriage. If you are concerned about your relationship, C-SEAP services can help. You can call 303-866-4314 to schedule an individual or couples counseling session with one of our licensed therapists. For more information on successful relationship wisdom, read John Gottman’s “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” or “How to Make Love Last” (2013).  And a special thank you to my husband Chad, for being a partner who rarely, if ever, displays the four horsemen.  Now, about those dirty socks… .

Rhonda Osborne, MA, LPC, CAC III

EAP Specialist


Author Unknown. (2002) New Report Sheds Light on Trends and Patterns in Marriage, Divorce, and Cohabitation. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved from

Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (1999). The Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Wong, B. (2014). The Truth about the Divorce Rate is Surprisingly Optimistic. Huffington Post. Retrieved from